The Paper Palace

August 28th, 2021

By Miranda Cowley Heller

The Short Take:

This debut novel reads well and unfolds nicely. There was too much child molestation for me (I have a low threshold), but the insights into the feelings of one victim were worth the read. Sections alternate between a couple of days in “current” time at a rustic family retreat in Cape Cod–not the posh part– and the life story of our narrator and her antecedents. It’s a wild trip.

Why?

Despite the previously mentioned bits that bothered me, I really enjoyed this book. The writing sang, with gorgeous descriptions. The pacing pulled you through, making it hard to put the book down. Her characters were complex yet she didn’t lay it all on the line. The narrator’s mother is an excellent example; she seems fully revealed yet parts remain hidden, just like a real person. Of course, the author doesn’t veer too far from her own reality: her husband is English and her family spent summers in Cape Cod. This adds to the immersive realism of the plot.

At first it’s hard to understand the narrator’s behavior, which could destroy her marriage and family. But the story of her life makes everything clear and you understand the powerful opposing emotions she faces.

It’s a strong book.

A Little Plot:

Elle sneaks out of a family dinner to have sex with Jonas, her childhood soulmate. The subsequent guilt she feels for betraying her husband and family fights with her burning desire for this life not lived. The novel explains why.

Surprisingly for someone who worked at HBO for some time, the author has no readily available website. However there are many interviews on line that reveal more about her.

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Gold Diggers

July 19th, 2021

By Sanjena Sathian

The Short Take:

A unique twist on the coming-of age story, with young people ingesting the powers of gold to further their own ambitions–but to the detriment of their associates. Highly enjoyable as well as being surprisingly informative.

Why?

The children of moderately successful Indian immigrants in this book are under immense pressure to succeed as Americans but also to embrace the Indian culture of their parents. To achieve this dichotomy they go to special programs, participate in many extra curricular activities, and more. Some even consume gold–stolen gold that is specially prepared and dissolved.

This practice impacts both those who take the gold and those who’s golden trinkets are stolen. Are these effects real? The book treats them seriously, or at least seems to. Several cover blurbs referred to this novel as funny which I didn’t get at all so maybe the joke’s on me. Regardless, it is a fascinating read that not only delves into the semi-contemporary lives of second generation American-Indians (it begins in the Bush era) but also explores the possible existence of an actual Indian gold digger in the ’49 California gold rush.

I doubt there’s another book with anything close to this unusual take on ambition, family, relationships, and loyalty.

A Little Plot:

While smart enough, Neil doesn’t have the drive or ambition of his ethnic Indian contemporaries. This disappoints his parents as well as himself. When his closest friend, neighbor Anita, becomes secretive and starts achieving new successes he wonders about the change and begins to investigate. Then he helps himself to the same solution.

For more about Sanjena Sathian click here.

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We Begin at the End

April 29th, 2021

By Chris Whitaker

The Short Take:

A nimble plot and incredible characters make this novel shine. It’s surprisingly noir for a book set in a California coastal resort town and sunny Montana, it combines elements of thrillers, westerns, and Dicken’s style tragedy. I could not put it down.

Why?

The two central characters couldn’t be more different–or more intriguing. Walk, the sheriff, has never left his small town and exudes loneliness. Thirteen-your-old Duchess is a self-described outlaw; a tough as nails spitfire who fiercely protects her five-year-old brother. The siblings need protection: Oliver Twist didn’t experience the constant danger these two endure and adults continually fail them.

Whitaker has a different way of describing his settings, more reflective of the emotions of the observers than a physical description. It can take a bit to sink into it but then you appreciate the texture it adds to the characters and plot.

And it is some plot. Even though you get a solid feeling “something isn’t right,” the author still manages to delivers surprise after surprise as the mystery begins to untangle.

A Little Plot:

A long ago death and a fresh murder seem to be linked to the same man, a newly released convict who was Walk’s best friend. The convict was also the boyfriend of Duchess’ mother, now an unstable substance abuser with abundant beauty and equally abundant bad life choices.

There’s also a dark and dangerous real estate developer bent on revenge. Whitaker gives you a lot to work with.

For a bit more about the author and this book, click here.

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Klara and the Sun

April 19th, 2021

By Kazuo Ishiguro

The Short Take:

Kindness, the sun, and love power AF (artificial friend) Klara; a narrator so compassionate and complex she out-humans the humans around her. Set in the near-future, this novel has sci-fi elements but it is solidly focused on faith, hope, and charity.

Why?

Ishiguro explores how our increasing reliance on algorithms, data, and computer intelligence might affect our humanity. Yet, he presents this through the eyes of a completely loving and caring AF. It’s hard to say who shows more soul–the AF Klara or her human owner, Josie.

The major points that shape the narrative are slowly revealed, almost like a series of mysteries. However Klara, with her impressive intuition, realizes what is happening and what needs to be done about it before we do.

It’s a familiar yet different world and Ishiguro introduces it to you gradually. Eventually you learn what “lifting” is, why AFs matter, the cause of Josie’s mysterious illness, and much more. All the pieces fall seemlessly into place and the final picture is one of the brilliant light of genuine love.

It’s a beautiful book and perfect for these times and the questions we face.

A Little Plot:

Klara hopes to be purchased (young teens seem to be the only owners of AFs), and carefully observes and thoughtfully interprets the actions of all the humans around her to better prepare herself for her future role. When Josie selects her she is delighted even thoughJosie warns her that she is sometimes sick. Klara remains undaunted and devotes herself to Josie’s well-being, in every sense.

You can learn more about Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro by clicking here.

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Solutions and Other Problems

April 7th, 2021

By Allie Brosh

The Short Take:

Brosh’s unique yet insightful views on family, pets, depression, and a host of human foibles will keep you laughing and make you think. What could be better?

Why?

Quirky drawings, surprising observations, and amazing creative thinking; these are Brosh hallmarks. And they’re on grand display in her newest book. Take the title, for example. It makes you smile, then you stop to think: Many solutions do result in other problems. That’s solid Allie Brosh.

I’ve always been a fan and was saddened when depression took her away from regular postings on her blog. However, she’s found her way into work again, and this is her second book.

Her strange drawings are oddly expressive. But it’s the subjects she explores, like dealing with questions and reactions when a dog starts retaining water in enormous quantities. These will have you giggling like a maniac as you nod your head in understanding. You might not have been there exactly but you get it completely.

A Little Plot:

Her stories range from childhood experiences to the here and now. There’s no order to their presentation, though a couple build on each other.

Brosh’s publisher agreed to let her put one chapter of her book on her old blog. Such a treat! And you can explore her other fantastic creations in the blog archive, or simply click on her favorites. But do click here to visit.

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The Four Winds

March 26th, 2021

By Kristin Hannah

The Short Take:

While the depiction of Dust Bowl/Great Depression poverty was interesting, the unrelenting suffering of the primary character wears you out.

Why?

Having read two other books by Hannah I should have been prepared for misery piled upon misery. I wasn’t. From a hateful family to a distant husband to the horrors of the Great Depression–it was one thing after another, all faced by a woman who felt she got only what she deserved.

The writing is fine and the pacing is good. Maybe in happier times this book about the struggles of people who have been reduced to a footnote in history might have resonated. Now it only reminds one of how far we haven’t come.

A Little Plot:

Elsa’s prosperous and very proper family clearly look down on her, constantly telling her she is unattractive and incapable. No wonder she sees her own future as an empty wasteland. In a single act of rebellion, she goes out one night in a flapper-stye dress and meets a man. The outcome is not good.

For more about Krisstin Hannah and her books, click here.

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A Thousand Ships

March 15th, 2021

By Natalie Haynes

The Short Take:

This novel tells the story of the Trojan War from the view points of its women. Plus it lays the blame for this 10-year long bloodbath squarely at the feet of it’s instigator–and it isn’t Helen.

Why?

Haynes’ unique perspective gives voice to the women and goddesses who play supporting roles in Homer’s epics. Why? Because even though these women did not go to battle (except for the Amazons), their stories are also heroic.

Written from many different perspectives, these women’s stories are not only drawn from portrayals in the Iliad and Odyssey but other classical writings that expanded their stories, such as the plays of Euripides. And Haynes provides character as well as plot: Penelope’s letters to her husband, Odysseus, develop a caustic tone as his journey home from a long war threatens to take even longer. Cassandra, who knows the future but is never believed, continually bears intense anguish due to her deadly knowledge.

Highly accessible and exceptionally informative this novel delivers a solid retelling of the war and its aftermath. It’s no feminist screed but does put a spotlight on the bravery, pain, vengefulness, pride, and patience of these women who are also heavily impacted by the death and destruction of this war.

A Little Plot:

It’s the Iliad and the Odyssey with some extra. You probably know the highlights of the plot.

For more about Natalie Haynes and her books click here.

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Nights at the Circus

February 26th, 2021

By Angela Carter

The Short Take:

This 1984 classic is incredible: a feminist fantasy, magical realism writ large, whip smart, deliciously naughty. It’s a full plate and night not be to your taste but I gobbled it up.

Why?

I’m so glad I stumbled across a reference to this complex and highly entertaining novel. Set right before the 1900s become the 20th century, it follows a winged (maybe) aerialist and her pursuing journalist from London to St. Petersburg to Siberia.

It’s filled with entertaining absurdities like waltzing tigers as well as acute observations on women’s rights–many of which are still applicable. It’s literally stuffed with points of interest, quotable lines, religious allusions, and truly fascinating characters. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction when it came out and 28 years later was voted the best book to ever win that award. that’s saying something since books have been winning that award since 1919.

It’s a rich, lively, thought provoking read. Try it.

A Little Plot:

Journalist Jack Falser suspects the supposedly winged trapeze artist Fevvers is a fraud, despite her being the toast of Europe. Now she is joining a circus bound for St. Petersburg and then Siberia and he decides he must follow her, not just for the story but for love.

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The Kingdom

February 9th, 2021

By Jo Nesbö

The Short Take:

Nesbö writes great mysteries featuring his Harry Hole character. This is a stand-alone that is as noir as they come, unpredictable, and mesmerizing. Be aware that it is very dark, but then that’s what we expect from Norwegian mystery writers.

Why?

While The Kingdom isn’t quite as violent as the typical Hole mystery its pervasive aura of alienation adds darkness to every plot device. The normally positive themes of family love and loyalty become perverted and deadly, creating bonds built on guilt and lies.

The action takes place in a small and isolated community, where everyone thinks they know everything about each other but are often wrong. The town’s atmosphere of hopelessness has a valid basis–a planned new highway will pass it by, removing the meager income provided by summer tourists.

But the return of a long-absent resident brings hope. Carl, brother to the book’s narrator, Roy, has big plans and wants the whole community to be part of them. But there are dark undercurrents of feelings and even darker secrets that could derail everything.

Nesbö’s writing is a delight, revealing one surprise after another–but seldom what you expect to happen. Older brother Roy is a taciturn loner with his astute insights that too often lead to violence. Carl charms with ease but has no problem with deception.

It’s a rich brew of conflicts old and new, with explosive revelations and that’s what keeps this reader happy.

A Little Plot:

After a 15 year absence, Carl comes home with a new wife and plans to build a luxury hotel to make them rich and save the town. His brother has misgivings but stands by his brother. In fact, protecting his brother has shaped his entire life.

For more about Jo Nesbö click here.

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Moonflower Murders

February 2nd, 2021

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

This is Horowitz’s second “book within a book” mystery and it’s as much fun as the first. Susan Ryeland is back, once again trying to fix a mess that involves the late writer, Alan Conway.

Why?

You don’t need to have read Horowitz’s Magpie Murders to fully appreciate this book, but why miss out on that fun? The author knows how to craft a mystery and in these books he doesn’t stop at one. In the middle of his modern mystery is another one, written in the classic style of the Agatha Christie era, with a main character who is practically a clone of Hercule Poirot.

I particularly like how Horowitz’s “own” writing purposefully out sparkles that of the “book” written by the fictional Alan Conway. It’s yet another clever touch in a well-crafted yet complicated plot. After all, how many mysteries serve up an eight years old murder, a current disappearance, and a fictional murder and then blend them together seamlessly.

The characters–or suspects–are intriguing and not exactly forthcoming when Conway’s former editor, Susan Ryeland, talks to them. She then delves into Conway’s book to discover what the missing Cecily saw that identified the guilty party of that long-ago murder.

Through this reading we learn a lot about the dead Conway and his strained relationship with Susan. And why the plot and writing of his book isn’t top-notch (guess what–it’s not her fault).

Did I mention the characters in Conway’s book are all based on the “real” people who figure into thee old murder and the current disappearance. It doesn’t get much more entertaining than that.

A Little Plot:

Susan is struggling with her small hotel in Greece when a couple approach her and offer a large sum if she’ll come to England to investigate their daughter Cecily’s disappearance. Why? Cecily told them that reading a mystery book by Alan Conway revealed who had killed a hotel guest eight years ago and then promptly disappeared. Since Susan edited Conway they figure she would be able to figure out what happened.

For more about Horowitz, his books, and his many other writings click here.

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