Archive for February, 2010

The Girl with Glass Feet

Thursday, February 25th, 2010


By Ali Shaw

The Short Take:

A modern fairy tale, this whimsical yet poignant first novel embraces the universal themes of love and loss, courage and commitment, avoidance and acceptance. Though it includes miniature cattle with iridescent moth wings, the glass-footed girl of the title, and other fantasy elements, the emotional nuances and interactions of the characters ring entirely real and true.

Why?

I admit a weakness for books with fantasy elements. But this one is in a very special category; for while the fantasy elements could have been replaced by real ones — say, substituting a highly aggressive cancer for Ida’s transformation into glass — this book’s impact would have been drastically diminished. It is the unfamiliarity of these fantasy elements that gives you fresh eyes for familiar situations.

Shaw’s descriptive style is also strangely seductive. While spare, it is highly impactful. You feel the chill and dampness in the frigid bog air outside as well as the pressing claustrophobia of the interior spaces.

You could call this a love story — every character in it is motivated by feeling love, avoiding love, or both. You could also compare it to the fairly tales of Hans Christian Anderson, with characters that need to experience pain as part of their path to finding love. It’s a lovely read on many levels. I’m so glad I got to experience it.

A Little Plot:

Ida MacLaird goes to the boggy, frozen world of St. Hauda’s Land in hopes of finding a solution to a terrifying problem — her feet have turned to clear glass and the transformation seems to be spreading. On an earlier — and healthier — visit she had a chance encounter with a man who she thinks can help her. Ida enlists a reluctant Midas Crook to help her in her quest. Midas would rather hold the world at a distance by interacting with it only through the viewfinder of a camera. Together they encounter a man who protects a herd of miniscule flying cattle, the man who still obsessively loves Ida’s late mother, and a woman who claims she can provide a cure. But time is growing short.

For more about author Ali Shaw and this book, click here.

New York: The Novel

Sunday, February 21st, 2010


By Edward Rutherfurd

The Short Take:

This engaging novel traces the history of New York from its early Dutch settlers to the 21st century. In the style of the late James Michener, it follows several families through the years. But what really made it interesting to me is the different perspective you get on American history from a English writer.

Why?

Even though this tome weighs in at a hefty 860 pages, I wanted it to be even longer. Honest. I wanted more of the fascinating glimpses into the arguments for and against the break with England, for and against the Civil War, for and against so many historic issues. I also learned quite a bit about our past that had exceptional relevance to this day — including the only explanation I have ever seen about “selling short” that made a lick of sense to me.

My biggest complaint was that there were so many things I wanted to read more about: the very first Dutch settlers of new Amsterdam (this book picks them up comfortably established), The Harlem Renaissance, Broadway, and so on. But I guess a novelist has to stop somewhere or his book becomes an encyclopedia.

In the past, Rutherfurd’s writing has mainly focused on Ireland and England. In this first venture across the Atlantic he has created a rich and rewarding read that entertains as much as it educates. While there’s no doubt it is a work of historical fiction, I found it to be a real page turner as well.

A Little Plot:

Even if you just barely remember your high school history, you should still have a general idea of what happened in present day New York between 1664 and the present, so there’s no need to go into that here. Rutherfurd invents one family to carry the story from start to finish — the prosperous Master clan. Multiple generations of other families come and go with the tides of history. It’s a tribute to Rutherfurd’s storytelling that you care just as much about the anguish and triumph of his own creations as you do about the unfolding story of one of the world’s greatest cities.

I have read almost all of Rutherfurd’s books and I would definitely put this one in his top three. I just wish it was longer.

For more about Rutherfurd, New York, and his other words, click here.

One Amazing Thing

Thursday, February 11th, 2010


By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Short Take:

At first glance you think you’re going to get the book version of a disaster movie. Turns out this slim novel is closer to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And that’s a very good thing.

Why?

A diverse group of people are waiting in a bureaucratic office when disaster strikes. Immediately you start expecting the usual stereotypes: the leader, the loser, the hysteric, the unexpected hero, and so on. There is some of that in this book but mainly this room of trapped people share stories. Not just any stories, but stories about something that shaped their lives — one amazing thing.

The stories are as diverse as their tellers and each is fascinating for entirely different reasons. What makes these stories even more interesting is how they change your preconceived notions about each person in the room.

The tales touch on social, political, romantic, and cultural themes. They’re about loss and longing, success and failure, betrayal and support. They’re wonderful, human stories. In fact, it’s hard to believe that so much life can be packed into so few pages (the hardback is only 219 pages long). This little book isn’t a gem, it’s a diamond mine.

A Little Plot:

A very diverse group of people are waiting help with their visas in the basement office of an Indian consulate when an earthquake strikes and they become trapped. Water is slowly seeping into the space, air is limited, there is no light, and things could get drastically worse at any second in the crumbling building.

To combat their growing panic, one young woman suggests they each share a story with the others: an important story from their lives. As they work together to improve their chances of survival, they also share these stories. And in the process reveal their souls. And enrich our lives.

For more about this noveland Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, click here

The Paris Vendetta

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010


By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

Berry creates thrillers of the Dan Brown genre, only with tighter plots and better writing (from my point of view). I love the way Berry weaves facts, speculation, and his own imagination to create a rip roaring tale with one cliff hanger after another. This one is his best so far.

Why?

I was already a Steve Berry fan, but I believe he has taken things up at least a couple of notches with The Paris Vendetta. Once again, his Cotton Malone character (an ex-Justice Department Operative who just can’t seem to stay ex’d) races to save the civilization — or at least some portion of it — from the bad guys.

Those of you who are unhappy with the world’s financial organizations should take special delight in this outing: in Berry’s world there truly is a cabal scheming to make busloads of money by manipulating markets and causing them to crash.

Could this book be any more timely?

Plus, there’s a whole Napoleon Bonaparte angle that is pretty hard to resist.

A Little Plot:

Malone is summoned by his dear friend, the wealthy Henrick Thorvaldsen, to help him stop The Paris Club, a group of already filthy rich individuals who intend to get much richer by manipulating markets. Thorvaldsen also has revenge for his son’s violent death on his mind.

As if financial malfeasance weren’t enough, it turns out certain members of The Paris Club are in search of the legendary hidden treasure of Napoleon (could these guys be any greedier?). With the dubious help of a new sidekick and a conspiracy blog writer, Malone tries to deter The Paris Club. However, his mission is seriously complicated by the co-conspirators’ attempts to double cross each other.

I told you it was thrilling. After all, it’s always nice (not to mention more interesting) when the bad guys are after each other as well as “the rest of us.”

For more about Steve Berry and his thrilling novels click here.

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