Archive for July, 2011

The Butterfly Cabinet

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

By Bernie McGill

The Short Take:

This dark tale about the accidental death of a child and how how it impacts the lives of two women — the mother and the maid — is beautifully wrapped in Irish culture. And, McGill’s elegant prose smoothly adapts to the two unique voices of her protagonists.

Why?

In 1892 Ireland, Harriet, the mother, and Maddie, the maid may occupy the same house but they are worlds apart. Class, religion, and position create a great divide. Yet for both of them, their actions and attitudes are driven by passions  suppressed by their circumstances.

Harriet is not presented as a sympathetic character. Her discipline of her children is extreme even for the times. She comes across as unyielding and unimaginative. But as her story unfolds you begin to understand, and appreciate, who she is.

Maddie, who feels like such an innocent at first, is the one with secrets and betrayals. And, it is when she lets her passion show that each slip takes place.

Harriet’s tale is revealed through a diary she keeps while in jail for the death of her young daughter. Maddie tells her story in person to Harriet’s granddaughter — the last child she was nanny to. Interestingly — and telling — the two women’s narratives are intricately intertwined,even though they had virtually no interaction.

There is an actual butterfly cabinet. Harriet collects them. Its symbolism is exceptionally revealing, for both women.

A Little Plot:

To keep her family from starving,Maddie goes to work for the aristocrats in the castle. Harriet, the mistress of the big house, has numerous children and sees it as her duty to discipline them however necessary to break their wild spirits and civilize them.

Her methods lead to the death of her young daughter, and she is tried and convicted for murder.

But there’s far more to this sad tale than you’d think. And, that is the story McGill unspools so hauntingly.

For more about Bernie McGill and her work, click here.

The Book of Lies

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

By Mary Horlock

The Short Take:

This will certainly give you a different take on the Guernsey WWII years than The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Also Horlock’s teen narrator feels completely real. And, it’s a straight up good read — three big pluses already.

Why?

Set in the 1980s, with interspersed bits from shortly after the war, this book captures a lot of the emotional conflicts and damage the Nazi occupation caused on the Channel Isle of Guernsey — not only during those five years, but for decades beyond.

The islanders were in an untenable position: fear and deprivation were so overwhelming that acts of defiance could easily earn your neighbors condemnation — only exceeded by the hatred that accompanied any perceived form of cooperation.

But all this is the back story to the saga of an overweight, scholarly teenage girl, Cat Rozier. Surprisingly, the unpopular Cat is swooped up as a best friend by a stunningly gorgeous new student, Nic.

It’s a strange and disturbing alliance. Horlock does an excellent job of conveying how an otherwise-bright teen can delude herself about the why’s and wherefore’s of her relationships and the motivations behind them.

Cat’s recently passed father  was obsessed with recording the accurate history of the Guernsey war years. His efforts to get to the truth about his own family’s WWII history has strong parallels with Cat’s own story, and the two narratives progress side by side. However, his efforts were not embraced by the islanders, who prefer to remember events in a hazier, more forgiving manner. Plus, the Rozier name has its own war year scandal to bear.

This is not a difficult read, but the plot offers a richness and subtlety that reach far beyond the surface. There’s a lot to think about if you chose to. Either way, you get to enjoy two fascinating tales of friendship and betrayal, as well as gain a whole new appreciation for just what the people of Guernsey faced during those five long WWII years.

A Little Plot:

When Nic befriends Cat, her whole world changes — she’s smoking, drinking, and basking in the company of the most popular girl in school. But Cat kills Nic (accidently), a secret nobody knows. She feels compelled to write down their whole story just to try and understand how one thing lead so tragically to another.

Interspersed with Cat’s story are  the remembrances of her Uncle Charlie, and his own complicated friendship with another teen during the WWII years — a friendship that also leads to death… and secrets. Cat’s father was deep into researching just what happened then when he died.

The two stories parallel each other, tracing relationships that grow, fracture, and are never quite what they seem. Good stuff. Good writing.

I couldn’t find a website for Horlock, but did find a YouTube video, shot on guernsey, that gives you more insights as well as some relevant Guernsey views. Click here to check it out.

The Snowman

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

By Jo Nesbø

The Short Take:

Steig Larsson has no monopoly on dark Nordic mysteries. In fact, Nesbø raises the bar at least several notches with this tightly written, red-herring-laden mystery. I was enthralled. Plus I guessed who “did it” four different times — and was wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Why?

This was a really, really good mystery. It jumped right in with a disappearance and never lest you go until the final page. While The Snowman is the seventh of the Detective Harry Hole  books (go ahead and get your giggles in about that name now, or am I the only with a Sophomoric sense of humor?) to be translated into English, it appears to be the first one to get star treatment. The good news: now we can pick up all the previous translations without having to wait around. I predict there’s going to be a lot of that going on.

Hole makes a good protagonist. He’s smart, tortured, both respected and disparaged by his peers, and has an ongoing battle with alcohol. That gives him plenty of texture and the necessary staying power for future reads. There’s so much plot to this densely-woven mystery his supporting characters don’t get the chance to be as fleshed out, but that might be because this is seventh in the series (though the first I have read) and you’re already supposed to know them.

What really impressed me was the plot itself. You think you know who the villain is, then Nesbø turns everything around. And that happens several times. That’s some pretty nifty mystery writing.

A Little Plot:

It seems women are disappearing at an abnormal rate in Norway — on the day of the fist snowfall. Harry Hole suspects a serial murderer is at work, but his fellow detectives think Harry just wants to find a serial murderer because he studied them back in the U.S.A.

As the disappearances increase, and the body count starts, Hole races to put together the clues, prevent the next murder, and — ultimately– protect himself from becoming the next victim.

There’s a lot going on, for sure. To visit Nesbø’s website for more about him and his books, click here.

Creep

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

By Jennifer Hillier

The Short Take:

Think Basic Instinct (Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone) but with an interesting role reversal, a lot of unexpected twists, and written in thriller style, plus more psychological slants than you can shake a stick at. Yikes! It’s hard to put this one down.

Why?

It’s not often you come across a book where the protagonists and antagonists all have demons to fight. Despite flaws all around, you’ll have no problem developing empathy for the beleaguered psych professor, Sheila Tao — though it might take you a bit — and an aversion to Ethan Wolfe, her dumped lover who turns… well, you’ll see.

It’s an interesting idea, and certainly a novel one, to give almost all your characters an addiction or perversion to work through (or give in to). Doing that could make it pretty hard to tell the good guys from the bad, but Hillier pulls it off. And she keeps you guessing about a lot of things: Who is the victim here? Who is the real bad guy? Who will forgive? Who will survive?

It’s an ideal summer read, as long as the Creep factor doesn’t get to you. Because it is in evidence and that’s what makes this book so very readable.

A Little Plot:

With a thriller, you don’t want to know too much in advance. It ruins things.

Sheila is engaged to the man of her dreams and must break off an illicit affair with her graduate assistant, Ethan. Unfortunately, Ethan doesn’t want to break things off and threatens revenge.

That’s all the plot you’re getting for me. Read Jennifer Hillier’s first novel is you want more. And, to visit her website, click here. Or, if you just want to know more about Creep, she’s got another website you can visit by clicking here.

Who Shot the Water Buffalo?

Friday, July 1st, 2011

By Ken Babbs

The Short Take:

This book is fierce: fiercely funny, fiercely written, and fiercely experienced. Set in the early days of the Vietnam War (the USA was just an advisor), it’s powerful in every sense of the word without being too in your face about the horrors of war. Babbs calls it a novel, but it felt like the real deal to me. I’m not a fan of war books in general, but I am a fan of this one.

Why?

One can hardly avoid comparing this novel to the WWII classic, Catch-22. They’re both set during wartimes, they both feature air missions (though these guys fly helicopters), and they both include various military SNAFUs. But while one was a classic satire, this book feels more like on-the-ground reporting: gritty, raw and in the moment. Yet it also includes some of the funniest sequences I’ve ever read in any book. I’m talking hysterically funny.

Also, while it as gritty and raw, it’s not gross (as in overly bloody) and it certainly isn’t preachy. Possibly the cleanest way to describe Babbs’ approach to his story telling is this: It is what it is. That’s how his Marine pilot characters face each day. And, that’s how their story is presented. There is no grandstanding or moralizing. You’ll take away from this book exactly what you bring to it.

The closest I’ve been to any war is visiting Gettysburg six score years after the battle, but this book certainly felt right. The staccato writing enhanced a sense of urgency that infused both the transport of troops into war zones surrounded by mountains and draped with fog, as well as the frantic searches for some kind of release when it came time for R and R. In fact the hardest thing for me to believe was if this was truly a novel and not Babbs’ own experiences as a Vietnam helicopter pilot.

By the way, Ken Babbs was a major player with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters after his Vietnam stint and helped Kesey with some of his writing. I don’t know why it took Babbs so long to finish his own book. But I can say this: It is worth the wait. And fierce.

A Little Plot:

Two Marine majors pair up at flight school and then ship out to Vietnam, where they share missions, quarters, and outrageous behavior. Tom Huckelbee is the product of four generations of Army soldiers but breaks away to be a Marine. Mike Cochran comes from a family of Ohio gangsters and enjoys mixing it up. They’re all arrogance and ignorance, and not very good at subservience. They thrive on flying into danger. When on the ground, they seek out more danger just for continue feeling alive. And, no war or commanding officer can stand in their way.

To visit Ken Babbs website click here. Unlike a lot of writer’s sites, it’s not focused only on his book. It’s fun to explore just for itself.

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