Archive for February, 2011

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story

A Facebook friend sent me a link to this fun website and I just had to share it. Different people send in alternative titles and book designs for everything from classic literature to the latest political rant. This was one of my favorites. The new title so describes this book (which I liked and reviewed here, by the way).

There are some funny ones, some rude ones, and some incomprehensible ones, but you’re sure to find at least one alternate title that amuses you.

Check it out by clicking here.

The Hangman’s Daughter

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

By Oliver Potzsch

The Short Take:

This fascinating historical novel is drawn from the family history of the author — whose forefathers were once prominent executioners (!) in Bavaria. Set in 1659, it’s a complex mystery involving witchcraft, town rivalries, murdered children, and forbidden love. Sounds good to me!


The town executioner of Schongau also conducts torture to secure convictions and picks up the garbage once a week. Not surprisingly, he and his family are largely shunned by the local citizens. Quite surprisingly, he has a vast store of herbal and medical knowledge and is not above using it to protect those in need. This is one executioner who doesn’t mind giving justice a little nudge in the right direction.

However, I’m not sure I get the book’s title: the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, doesn’t play that big of a role. Plus, the physician she loves (and who loves her) seems to have an awful lot of unexplained money for fancy clothes. Is it possible the editors decided to eliminate parts of the plot in this translation? One wonders. I do like that the translator preserved the Bavarian feel of the story without getting you mired in too many Germanic terms.

The hangman himself, Jakob Kuisi, is a terrific character and a fitting tent pole for this book. You will stand solidly in his corner from cover to cover. His sort-of-sidekick, Simon, the physician his daughter loves, comes across as rather weak and self-absorbed by comparison. I don’t see what Magdalena sees in him. But don’t we say that about so many relationships?

All in all it’s a highly enjoyable historical mystery/thriller and I bet we’ll be hearing a lot about it in the future. After all, someone had to be paying attention to the success of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

A Little Plot:

A young boy is savagely murdered and a strange mark is found on his back. Immediately everyone thinks witchcraft and, of course, the town midwife is the number one (and only) suspect. Hangman Jakob believes she is innocent and strives to find the real culprit while delaying her scheduled torture as much as possible. But when more children disappear and a strange fire burns down a warehouse, he’s hard pressed to delay much longer. The town council burghers want that witch executed as soon as possible: the last time there was a delay in executing a witch, 60+ other women were also accused and burned. That is a scandal the town does not want to see repeated.

And who can blame them?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a website for the author or this book — at least any sites in English — but there are a number of other reviews out there.

How to Be an American Housewife

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

By Margaret Dilloway

The Short Take:

This endearing novel centers on the life of a WWII Japanese war bride who is now an old and ailing woman, sadly estranged from her family in Japan. She asks her unhappy daughter to go to Japan to help rebuild her relationships with surprising results all around. I suspect this sweet little book will become a book club favorite.


All the elements are here: the young Japanese woman who leaves everything behind in hopes of a better life in America, a frustrated mother/daughter relationship, old secrets and sorrows, the need for new beginnings. You find yourself simply devouring this book to discover how it all turns out.

Shoko, the Japanese wife, is a delightful protagonist: genuine, clear-eyed, familiar but also foreign. Dilloway drew from her own mother to craft this wonderful character and that lucid portrait is the star of this book. Shoko is the rock this book stands on, and worthy in every way.

Another delightful touch is the short entry before each chapter, purportedly drawn from a book (imagined by the author) with the same title as this novel. These entries give advice to Japanese women who come to America as brides. Brutally honest and sometimes scathingly funny, the inserts let Dilloway explain the obstacles these Japanese war brides women faced every day of their lives without bogging down her story. It is an artful and insightful addiiton.

This is no great literary tome, but it is a lively read that can’t help but touch you in some way. And, it may also open your eyes to some aspects of WWII and Japanese culture — which is no bad thing.

A Little Plot:

The aging Shoko has a bad heart and must face a dangerous surgery. Before she faces the scalpel, she wants to rebuild a relationship with the younger brother who turned his back on her when she married an American soldier shortly after WWII. When her deteriorating health makes it impossible to take the trip to Japan, she asks her daughter, Sue, to heal the breach.

Sue is a divorced mother, unhappy with herself and her job. Unsure what to expect, she agrees to go and takes her own young teen daughter on the quest. What results changes everyone’s life.

Flashbacks reveal Shoko’s early life and why she came to America as well as sketching in her relationships with her husband, son, and the often confusing American world she has lived in for decades.

To visit author Margaret Dilloway’s website, click here.

Ghost Light

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

By Joseph O’Connor

The Short Take:

In this outing, O’Connor’s rich tapestry of words wraps around the real love story of Irish playwright John Synge and a young actress, Molly Allgood. Short on action but long on atmosphere, this portrait of a doomed love affair is incredibly rich as well as heart wrenching.


While the characters and general outline of this love affair are true, O’Connor has invented most of the events depicted in his compelling novel. The focus is on Molly Allgood, who we see both as a lonely and broken old woman and as a young, up-and-coming actress. But it is how Synge impacts her life — both while living and since his death — that forms this book’s essence.

Semi-literate as I am, I had never heard of Synge. Though the title of his most famous play, “Playboy of the Western World,” was familiar to me, it had no context. Synge had a short yet brilliant career as a playwright before dying at age 37. When he met Molly, he was already quite ill, not to mention almost twice her age. He was from the landed aristocracy, well-educated, and Protestant. Molly was everything he was not. Yet they formed a deep relationship, tempestuous at times, and often carried on in secret as both of their families thoroughly disapproved.

O’Connor hops through time and sometimes changes his narrative from Molly’s first person account to Synge’s point of view or even into the third person. In addition, Molly’s own drunken and confused memories as an old woman sometimes mix and merge like a crowded dreamscape. Some readers might not love this. I liked these fractal images with their quick insights that made Molly’s attraction to Synge more understandable, as well as his passion for her. Plus it felt real — the mind hops and skips when you think back on your life, with one memory sparking another.

The book’s title refers to an old theatre custom where one light is left burning in a dark theatre so that its ghosts may perform. O’Connor’s gorgeously written novel lets the ghosts of Molly and Synge perform — and love — unhindered.

A Little Plot:

The novel opens with an aged Molly living in poverty, drinking heavily, yet with still enough spark to turn on her charm and acting powers when needed. Her memories take her back to the days of her largely secret relationship John Synge, when she was a young actress at the prestigious Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

He wants to improve her mind but also finds in her his muse. Young and inexperienced, she is often confounded by this complex and haunted man who seems lonely in his very soul yet experiences life with frightening deepness.

Together they explore the wild landscapes of Ireland and each other, against the wishes of everyone who knows them.

Then she carries on alone, through successes and failures, until she is just another old actress lucky to have a small part in a radio play in bombed out, worn out, 1952 London. But she remains quite aware of how loved and even fortunate she has been.


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


February 2011