Archive for January, 2010

Bleeding Heart Square

Friday, January 29th, 2010

By Andrew Taylor

The Short Take:

One mystery isn’t enough for Andrew Taylor. This book easily contains a half dozen mysteries, not to mention a fair share of red herrings and a bounty of family secrets. Plus there’s Taylor’s rather shocking (for me) portrait of English politics between the two World Wars. All in all, and in all the details, it’s one great read.


Taylor is an established, award winning mystery writer but he was new to me. Was I ever missing out! While this might not be a book for the ages (though, who am I to say?) it’s certainly one densely plotted, well populated, intriguing, and even educational mystery.

I say educational due to the window it opens on the political climate in England between the wars. Fascists were surprisingly popular with elements in the upper class while Communism had a strong appeal to the masses. And, of course, the two clash. While these clashes do not form the center of the novel, they do make part of an interesting backdrop.

It’s also somewhat jarring to realize that the cigarette smoking, modern dressed women of that era were still shackled by the social expectations and limitations of the previous century.

But it’s the smart  and multi-faceted mystery itself that absorbs you. And, good luck trying to outguess this writer! Even with the hundreds of mysteries I’ve read, I was still surprised at the end — and Taylor did not play any tricks to make that happen.

A Little Plot:

New bride Lydia Langstone,  abused by her ambitious husband, seeks shelter at the seedy Bleeding Heart Square with a father she has never before met. A mature woman of means, Philippa Penhow, disappears (or worse) after taking up with a charming rogue. A young man hopes if he solves this mysterious disappearance, his sweetheart may obtain the money they need to wed.

The two stories become enmeshed when that charming rogue turns out to now be landlord of the building Philippa once owned and where Lydia now resides. Secrets from the past, coincidences that cannot possibly be accidental, and dangers real and imagined abound. It’s a great mystery to become immersed in: Because you not only want to figure out who did it, but also just what exactly was done.

For more about this book and Andrew Taylor, click here.

Last Night in Twisted River

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

By John Irving

The Short Take:

If you already know and like John Irving, grab on to this book. While the situations and personalities aren’t quite as out there as his National Book Award winning The World According to Garp, Irving’s excellent story telling and the attention he devotes to developing the character’s relationships make this effort one of his best.


John Irving is a “must read” for me. His characters and plot lines are always at least a little quirky — a trait I continually enjoy. Last Night in Twisted River is actually a bit closer to “normal” than most his novels, though there are surprising number of Amazon-sized women scattered throughout the plot. This is also arguably the most political of Irving’s novels in that it includes actual events like the Vietnam War and the attacks of 9/11.

Ultimately this book is about love, but not the romantic variety. It focuses instead on friendship and family and the way you helplessly worry about losing those you love. Irving also includes a fair amount of literary criticism through a central character, Danny, who is also a writer. Danny’s schooling, various homes, and achievements largely parallel Irving’s own, including such details as being mentored by the late Kurt Vonnegut. What’s amusing to me is that Irving uses this character to complain about critics spending so much time looking for influences and hints from “real life” in works of fiction. However, here he goes, pretty much waving a red flag at the bull (or herd of bulls).

Regardless, this is one of Irving’s better efforts: a touching story that will intrigue you in many ways.

A Little Plot:

Danny, the young son of lumber camp cook, Dominic, accidently kills someone who had a close relationship with the crazy, mean, vindictive constable. To protect his son, Dominic decides to go into hiding. Aided by their close friend, Ketchum, the two leave the area and change their identities.

While Ketchum remains at the lumber camp to keep an eye on the constable, Dominic and Danny build close friendships with others that must irrevocably be broken when the constable comes too close to finding them.

Ultimately it is the close and complicated bonds between the cook and his son, and with their friend, Ketchum, that weave through and embrace every page of this novel. Covering half a century, this book contains moments of tragedy and violence but deep and selfless love forms it’s true heart.

To visit John Irving’s own website, click here.

The Wordy Shipmates

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

By Sarah Vowell

The Short Take:

Vowell tells the story of the Puritan’s colony in the New World (not to be confused with the Mayflower Pilgrims) with humor, giving it context in history as well as relevance to the present day. Her obvious love for her subject is tempered by a lively wit and clear-eyed observations that make this non-fiction book a delight to read.


The Mayflower, Thanksgiving, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John”: that’s pretty much all I retained about the settling of America by Europeans after many, many American history classes. Sad but true.

This book not only helps to correct that flaw in an entertaining way, it also demonstrates how the beliefs of the original Puritans differed from what we consider to be Puritan thinking today.

Vowell has a political point of view (she definitely is not wild about Reagan), but it is obvious she loves the Puritans in addition to finding them intolerant and hypocritical. And, yes, it is possible to feel both: The Puritans were complex, well educated people who valued writing and reading (hence the book’s title). There is plenty to both respect and decry.

Among other things, you’ll gain a better understanding of the thinking behind separation of church and state (thank you, Roger Williams), and where that “shining city on a hill” reference comes from politicians so delight in using when talking about the U.S.A.

A frequent contributor to public radio, Vowell’s seductive sense of humor and wry observations make this book much more entertaining than your typical history. You not only gain historical information, you also garner a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of this country and it’s Constitution.

A Little Plot:

This book focuses on the Puritans from the time they left England in 1630, until the death of their leader, John Winthrop, in 1683. Within that time they establish Boston and other communities in the area, wage wars against the native inhabitants, and worry about their relationship with their King back home.

However, this books focuses more on how their religious beliefs shape their government and its relationships with other settlements, the original North American occupants, and its own citizens. You’ll see why Roger William’s ideas about religious tolerance  were a troubling and divisive force (he felt the Puritans weren’t saintly enough and wanted them to tolerate his more sanctified life). Again, the slightly different religious thinking of housewife Anne Hutchison is considered just as worrisome as the King’s threat to send a military force to oversee the colony.

It’s a fascinating look at people who not only went boldly into the wilderness but who cared mightily about knowledge, understanding, and community.

By the way, if you like reading about Pilgrims and their ilk, you might consider this as a companion piece to Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Mayflower (which I wrote a bit about on 9/30/2008 if you care to check my archive). It’s interesting that while Plymouth Pilgrims are so geographically close, they barely seem to impact Boston’s Puritans. Again, a subtle difference in religious belief kept them apart.

The Children’s Book

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

By A. S. Byatt

The Short Take:

Reading this brilliantly complex book is a humbling experience. Alongside the wonder and delight one feels as the novel unfolds — weaving the stories of children from different families; there is the amazing amount of background information that gives you a solid sense of time and place — England from the waning of the Victorian age through World War 1.


Novels often encompass a very limited world, strictly defined by the characters, their immediate surroundings, and their intimate experiences. Not so The Children’s Book. Anarchists, suffragists, the trials of Dreyfus and Wilde, the original production of Peter Pan, the building of the Victoria and Albert Museum, neo-paganism, the Boer War, socialism, William Morris — these are just a few of the myriad influences that shape and reshape Byatt’s characters. It’s as real-world a novel as I think I have ever read.

The humbling part is how little I knew about the complex social and cultural tensions and concerns of these times. In fact, as a result of this book, I have a whole list of topics I want to explore further. For me, this is the ultimate gift from a writer — a book I can truly savor as a literary work that also piques my curiosity and expands my understanding of the human story.

Then there is the central theme of the book — the difference (or possibly the sameness) between fantasy and reality. The writing and performance of fairly tales contrasts with the desire for sweeping socialist reforms in the real world. Or maybe they are one and the same? Certainly the families in this novel all have incorporated fairy tales into their personal narratives.

Some people may find descriptions of different lectures on topics like social issues or the origins of myths tedious to read. Don’t feel like you have to absorb every line fully. These speeches and references are important to the story but you can grasp their gist even if, like me, you are sometimes confused by what they mean (I will learn more, though!).

This book is rich in everything — character development, writing, plot, background. Yum.

A Little Plot:

The children (and some of the parents) of six (more or less) families form the nucleus of this epic story. And they aren’t all the characters that inhabit this novel. Don’t let that daunt you. Byatt gently moves the focus of her book from one character to another in a graceful flow that keeps you from being overwhelmed by names and relationships.

The large and happy family of Humphrey and Olive Wellwood link all the other characters. She is a successful writer of fairy tales. He is a budding socialist and member of the Fabian Society. They surround themselves with artists, intellectuals, political activists, and other intriguing characters. The growing up years of their children — and the children of their family and friends — are all influenced by these visitors and lecturers, but no two in the same exact way.

As the children move from their teens to adulthood, they experience uncertainties, tragedies, successes, and the revelation that some of their closest held truisms were actually fantasies. But that’s all the information you’re getting here. Just read the book. It’s a great way to start off this year. Or any year.

For more about A. S. Byatt, this book and others click here.


    Want to be notified when there is a new post? Sign up to the RSS feeds below
  • Entries


January 2010