Archive for August, 2009

The Day the Falls Stood Still

Friday, August 28th, 2009

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Short Take:

This enjoyable novel encompasses two love stories: one involving a man and woman, the other between the same man and the Niagara River. Ultimately, it is this second story that is more compelling.


Often novels with an environmental slant hit you over the head with a message about the evil of transforming nature to advance industry, which can lead to some pretty preachy and tiresome reading. Buchanan’s book reflects the conflicted feelings many people have about damming rivers to produce the power that eases lives (if they bother to think about it, that is). In fact, her central character, Bess Heath, finds it hard to align her own feelings about the conveniences electric power brings with her lover’s passion for protecting the river he adores. At the same time, her Tom must reconcile his desire to protect the river he knows like his own body with his need to provide for a family.

It’s conflicts like these that make Bess such an approachable and interesting character. Alongside her every move of strong-willed determination march worrisome doubts and her love for Tom, both which temper her actions. She forms a worthy cornerstone for this book.

Other engaging aspects of The Day the Falls Stood Still include the information you garner about Niagara Falls’ colorful history as well as the portrait of life in the first part of the 20th century, from the vantage point of both the well-to-do and the not-so privileged. All good reasons to seek out this first novel.

A Little Plot:

Bess comes home from her exclusive boarding school to find her family in much reduced circumstances: Her father has lost his job and her beloved sister has been jilted by her fiance. Mom strives to make ends meet through her exceptional sewing skills, a talent Bess shares.

Her family pins their hopes on Bess making an advantageous match — and the right man is interested. But Bess has her eye on river man Tom Cole. She struggles to reconcile her duty and love for her family with her own desires — a struggle that continues to reshape itself as tragic circumstances unfold.

For more about the author and her book, click here.

The Angel’s Game

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Short Take:

Take note: This book is a horror story/ghost tale/journey into madness. Do not expect the dreaminess/romance/occasional humor of Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. You won’t find it here. So get over that and jump into this compelling and consumming spine-tingler.


Much has been made of the relationship between this book and Zafon’s hugely popular earlier novel. This purported prequel actually has virtually nothing to do Shadow. Yes, it is set in Barcelona and, yes, the Cemetary of Forgotten Books makes an appearance, but that’s about it. There’s more of Edgar Allen Poe or James’ The Turn of the Screw in this scary nightmare (in a good sense) of a book.

Moody and masterful, this novel is solid gold gothic fare — all shivers and shadows. Reality is questioned, sanity doubted, and expectations raised only to be shattered. Get lost in this book and you’ll want to leave a light burning at night — at least for a few days. That’s okay, the world of The Angel’s Game is worth an extra kilowatt.

A Little Plot:

Poor and orphaned, David Martin dreams of being a writer. Well-received stories at a newspaper lead to a demanding position cranking out highly lurid and successful novels under a pen name for his money-obsessed publishers. He longs for fame under his own name but is held artistically captive by his contract.

Then along comes the mysterious publisher Andreas Corelli who offers Martin a chance to write a world-changing book, along with a substantial cash payment. Plus, he’ll make that pesky other contract go away. It’s a proposal Martin finds irresistable.

That’s when the deaths, mysteries, and dangers really start to pile on. And never let up.

The Winter Vault

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

By Anne Michaels

The Short Take:

This is possibly the most lyrical, beautifully written book I have ever had the pleasure to read. It’s no surprise Michaels is also a poet — each sentence betrays her artistry. But don’t go looking for a complex plot. That’s not what this gem is about.


Please don’t whip through this book. You’ll do yourself a major disservice. And the author as well. This novel begs to be savored, page by page. There are so many lines to think about, so many descriptions that make you ache, so much to appreciate — just take your time. Read it bit by bit.

Michaels put her emphasis on her richly nuanced characters rather than her plot. In fact, the plot is so minimal there’s no chance you’ll lose its thread even if you read other books simultaneously (like I did in order to make this one last longer).

The pain of loss and the renewed reality (or is merely illusion?) that comes with rebuilding lies at the heart of this amazing book. Temples, homes, children, nations, everything but memories disappear and reappear in the stories the characters tell each other as well as through their direct actions.

This book gives you so much to think about, so much to feel, it was almost overwhelming in its richness. But it is very much an internal book, driven by feelings rather than actions.  For those of us more used to reading books where a cunning plot twist means more than the language, it could be a disappointment — even boring.

But I was enraptured.

A Little Plot:

Avery and his bride Jean journey to Eqypt to oversee the relocation of the Temple of Abu Simbel, saving it from inundation once the Aswan Dam is completed. They had met and married in Canada, where he helped create a new waterway that sped commerce but caused thousands of forced relocations. He hopes to find solace for those displacements by saving something precious, but has doubts.

The Aswan Dam also displaces a whole civilization — an epic tragedy. Jean and Avery suffer their own tragedy as well and return to Canada with separate lives. As they struggle to find their futures, Jean pursues her passion for botany while Avery studies architecture in order to build. She meets a Polish artist whose stories of the destruction and resurrection of Warsaw seem to reflect her own life.

This is already more plot than I ever reveal — though less than the book jacket. But this is one time when it’s not the plot, it’s everything else that really matters.

Anne Michaels does not seek the spotlight, but for a fairly recent interview, click here.

Mr. Timothy

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

By Louis Bayard

The Short Take:

Remember Tiny TIm from A Christmas Carol? Bayard transforms him into a complicated, conflicted man who becomes immersed in a deadly pursuit. Don’t think of this as a sequel to the Dickens classic: It’s a taut mystery starring the seamiest side of Victorian London. And a really great read.


I usually don’t review books this old (2003), but I just had to make an exception for Mr. Timothy. Not only does it take familiar Dickens characters and transform them, it is also a first-rate mystery, a fascinating character study, and a ghost story to boot.

The title character sees his recently deceased father everywhere, yet feels lost within himself. His journey of self-discovery travels alongside his exploration of a scandalous and terrifying mystery throughout the course of this novel.

You can read this book on so many levels — savoring its symbolism or simply enjoying the thrilling ride — and still have a wonderful time. Rich in Victorian detail and (grungy) atmosphere, it is also full of those small but jewel-like moments that make a book truly special.

Bayard’s characters are as memorable as Dickens, though his writing style is completely contemporary. It’s an ideal match that lets us inside the whirling mind of Mr. Timothy as well as his up-side-down world.

It would make a great book club book where members sought different things from their monthly read. I don’t think anybody would be disappointed.

A Little Plot:

An aimless Mr. Timothy, still taking handouts from Uncle N (Scrooge), teaches a madam how to read and write in exchange for housing in her brothel. Adrift both on land and on the Thames, he comes across two very young girls, both dead and both with the same brand burnt into their forearms. When he spies another girl running in fear for her life he cannot resist the urge to try and save her.

With the sometimes unwelcome aid of the ever-hopeful river rat, Gully, and the ambitious gutter snipe, Colin, he finds himself coming closer to understanding the mystery behind these dead girls. Unfortunately his adversaries know what he’s up to and will do anything to stop him.


For more about Louis Bayard, Mr. Timothy, and his other books, click here.


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August 2009