Archive for April, 2010

Through Black Spruce

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

By Joseph Boyden

The Short Take:

Boyden’s second novel is a worthy successor to his marvelous Three Day Road. This mesmerizing journey through the lives and dreams of two Canadian Crees is rich and rewarding. I wish I’d gotten my hands on it when it first came out (March, 2009). I hope you’ll make the effort to find it now.


Two narrators — a Cree bush pilot in a coma and his beautiful niece — alternate narrative chapters in this haunting novel. In his dreams, he tells her of the journey of his life. At his bedside, she whispers to him about her journey through the glittering world of clubs and glamour.

Infused with fascinating details about Northern Crees who live closer to a traditional lifestyle, both narratives are really about the journey to find one’s self. But this is no mere moody tale, it’s filled with genuine suspense alongside surprising flashes of humor.

Boyden creates characters you believe in and really care about. While bush pilot Will Bird is more complex and thoughtful than his niece, Annie, that makes perfect sense considering her young years. By the same token, Will’s personal torments and genuine fears have a depth that Anne’s hollow sojourn in New York cannot achieve.

The way these two narratives balance and compliment each other really works. Boyden is a very gifted and convincing writer. His first novel made a huge impression on me. And this one did not disappoint.

A Little Plot:

Cree Bush pilot, Will Bird, lies in a coma. His niece, Annie, visits him daily. In his mind, he is telling her the story of his three plane crashes as well as his struggle against a local thug who is out to kill him (we don’t know why he is in a coma until the end, and there is more than one possibility).

Because a nurse claims talking may help Will, Annie whispers stories about what happens to her in Toronto and why it sent her to New York in search for her now missing sister, Suzanne, a once rising fashion model.

Will’s tale encompasses enduring friendships and heart-breaking loss, along with very real fear of his ruthless and powerful enemy. Annie’s story reflects the emptiness and capriciousness of the world of what’s in and who’s out. But she faces danger, too. And the danger both her and her uncle face are both wrapped up with the missing and elusive Suzanne.

To learn more about this book and Joseph Boyden, click here.

Vacation Reading

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The first thing I do when we plan a vacation is pick out the books I’m going to take along. Then I change them about a dozen times before settling on a final collection.

I don’t have a particular style of book I want to read when on holiday — I’ve taken everything from Fielding’s Tom Jones to Lee Child thrillers along for the ride. In fact, I like to really mix up my genres. But I do have a fear of not having something on hand to read, so for a two-week trip I’ll usually pack seven books. And I’m often on that very last book on the way home. I sure wish I had that much time to read at home!

My vacation books all fall in the read-and-release category, however. After I finish a book I leave it at the B&B or on the cruise ship or in the airport or wherever. That means I never carry books that I think I might want to add to my permanent library.

Most of my vacation books come from Friends-of-the-Library sales or estate sales. FOTL sales are a great resource for gently used books at bargain prices. I stumbled across my first one in Hot Springs, Arkansas and came away with three boxes filled with books.

What makes these sales extra wonderful is that all the folks there — both volunteers and shoppers — are avid book lovers. That means you can get great recommendations on new authors with ease. The books themselves are usually a combination of library discards and books donated by library patrons. And, since the funds raised go to support the library, you’re doing good while doing pretty well for yourself.

Of course, I’ve gone overboard with these sales and now have a closet literally filled with books to chose from come vacation time. It’s an embarrassment of riches, but when someone recommends a book (and it’s a bargain) I can’t resist picking it up.

Fortunately, one of the best thing about books is that they never, ever go stale.

The Owl Killers

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

By Karen Maitland

The Short Take:

Talk about your dark ages: It doesn’t get much darker than the decaying town of Ulewic in 1321 England. Maitland knows how to completely immerse you in another time and place. This time she’s created a beaten-down village that’s a smoldering mix of despair, suspicion, superstition, and just plain evil. Be glad you’re only visiting.


I enjoyed this brooding novel, but it’s not for everyone. It is dark. Very dark. Maitland has already demonstrated her mastery of mood-setting description (check out my review of her Company of Liars on 12/27/08). This time she also carefully metes out insights into the personalities of the main characters in her extensive cast of players. There are no heroes and villains here, just people with all their flaws. Okay, there are a couple of really, really bad villains, too.

What grabbed me most was the multi-faceted struggle as pagan ways, cultural superstitions, and the Church repeatedly clashed as well as over-lapped. And that dynamic was already in place before a group of foreign women set up a beguinage outside of town.

What’s a beguinage, you say? It was new to me, too. Think of it as half way between a nunnery and a women’s liberation stronghold. The beguines were all women, living together and pursuing their livelihoods without aid from men. While devout, they were outside the Church structure. Women could study, work, pray, but had the option to leave at any time.

Plop a group of self-contained, independent women like that into this place….. yikes!

But it’s this book’s examination of the era’s religious practices, the roles of women, and the complete power of powerful Lords that intrigues and keeps one turning page after page.

A Little Plot:

Crops fail and disease decimates livestock. Both the Manor Lord and the Church constantly have their greedy hands out, squeezing the very life out of the villagers. A fear-mongering local cult, the Owl Masters, is sure all these problems and more arise from abandoning the pagan ways of old. And they don’t care for those foreign ladies, either.

In that respect, Church, villagers, the Manor, and the Owl Masters are united. Suspicions and fears are fired in Ulewic even as the beguines reach out with food and help for the sick.

Oh, and did I mention that the Lord’s daughter was disowned and sent to the beguinage after she was raped?

If you want to more know more about Maitland, visit her website by clicking here.

Getting Your Thrills

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

In the last two months I’ve read four thrillers. One of them I reviewed here on February 3rd, if you want to look back (The Paris Vendetta by Steve Berry). Another one I mentioned — not very favorably — on my “What I’m Reading Now” page of this site (The Genesis Secret by Tom Knox).

The other two I read were James Rollins’ The Altar of Eden and Douglas Preston’s Impact.

All of these have something in common: there is a scientific, historic, or religious (a la Dan Brown) element that is central to the plot and the thrills. I have a particular fondness for thrillers like these because they send me to the Internet to find out more  about things presented as fact and if there is any reality behind theories presented in the plots. I love learning new things.

But these authors are all very different as well. With James Rollins, I find the truth in his novels far more frightening than the plot devices he invents. Seriously. I still cringe every time I think about the very real radioactive lake in one of his other books that’s located right over earthquake fault lines: one good shake and those waters could wind up in the North Sea, making a lot of Northern Europe unlivable. Just another terrifying tidbit from one of Rollin’s thrillers. Conveniently for your nightmares, he identifies all the facts in his novels at the end.

In his newest book, Rollins gives his usual saviors-of-the-world, Gray Pierce and the Sigma Force, a rest. Personally, I enjoyed the change of characters; but I’m not by any means tired of his usual cast. I do wonder if he or his publisher felt this change was a risk, though.

On the other hand, Douglas Preston delivers the most unpredictable thrillers — and I mean that as a compliment. His newest thriller has mysterious meteor-type-thingies making holes right through the earth. The book before that centered on a machine built to talk to God and a crazed religious zealot determined to stop it at all costs. There is one central character in common, but that’s it. You just never know where Preston will find your thrills next.

Of course, Preston also writes with Lincoln Child, producing (among others) seven straight books featuring the fascinating Special Agent Pendergast, easily the most peculiar mystery solver this side of Sherlock Holmes. So you could say he has the best of both worlds — and so do his readers.

Like Rollins, Steve Berry centers most of his books around a regular cast of characters, starring Cotton Malone, a former Justice Department Operative who theoretically runs a bookshop in Copenhagen but is glad to take time out to save the world repeatedly. Berry likes to build his plots around some long-lost thing or secret, sometimes giving it some sort of super power that appeals to evil types.

One Berry trait I find amusing: He always manages to have a gun battle in a church or cathedral. He claims there is no subtext to this, there just happen to be more really old religious buildings than other structures. Well, he has a point there.

Who is my favorite? Of the current new releases, I lean just a bit more towards Preston. But I won’t miss a new release by any of them and squeeze in the older ones I haven’t read  whenever I find time.

That’s how I like to get my thrills. And at the same time pick up a lot of interesting information. What could be better than that?


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April 2010