Archive for October, 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

By Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Short Take:

While mermaids loom large in this historical fiction, it’s Gowar’s portrayal of the inequalities and restraints in 18th center London that forms the backbone of this fascinating novel. Her female characters use every means at their disposal to survive in a society which gives them few options.


Even though I heard this debut novel had a satisfying ending, I didn’t believe it until it happened. I truly worried about the main characters, despite the fact they only exist between the book’s covers. That’s a tribute to Gowan’s ability to make individuals totally outside your ken so keenly alive.

Her writing style delights, too. Conversations become games of conquest with multiple layers of meaning and partially hidden put downs, reminiscent of the verbal sparring in Austen’s books. The author also incorporates common terms for the era, which added to the realism: a madam became a bawd, a courtesan’s vagina became her commodity.

The book highlights the plight of urban women. If you can’t marry, there’s not much else open to you. Again and again the reader encounters women on the street, competing for men’s attention and a few pennies. While the prostitutes in the finer brothels are well mannered and elegant, they’re still whores with few prospects.

The central character, Angelica Neal, left one of those brothels to become a kept mistress. Unfortunately her protector died, which leaves her scrambling for financial security. Though a well-known beauty, her past narrows her future opportunities. However, as a friend observes, marriage for money still make you a whore.

That is the challenge Gowar’s women face.

Meanwhile, her main male character, Mr. Hancock, leads a life of boring respectability and soul-crushing blandness. He has financial well being but intense loneliness and a feeling that barely out of reach is the life he should be leading, where the son who died at childbirth still thrives.

These two should never meet, but a mermaid brings them together. Another starts to tear them apart.

A Little Plot:

Through no desire of his own, widower merchant Mr. Hancock comes into possession of a dead mermaid that appears to be genuine. He displays it with rewarding financial returns, which also attracts the attention of a notorious madam who wishes to rent it for a lavish spectacle. It’s here he becomes enamored with the beautiful, self-centered Angelica Neal.

For more about the author and her novel, click here.


Things Fall Apart

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

By Chinua Achebe

The Short Take:

Now 60 years old, this book has lost none of its exceptional power. It’s the first in Achebe’s African Trilogy, and I will be reading the other two. The two interrelated stories of this novel center on Okonkwo, an Ibo leader who values strength above all else. No wonder this book is often a required read for school kids. However, I wonder if they have the life experience to fully understand what they are reading.


At barely 200 pages (in trade paper), this novel is a quick read but it is stuffed with important world themes: the relationship (or lack there of) between fathers and sons, the role of women in society, the rise and fall of power, the community versus the individual.

Of course the biggest theme of all is the impact of European colonialism on countries like Nigeria and how that destroyed native cultures. While most missionaries were well intentioned, the chaos they created has repercussions that are still felt more than a century later.

However, it’s the story, the characters, and the cultural details in Things Fall Apart that keep you turning the pages in eager anticipation (or dread). My bookclub doesn’t know it yet, but I’m picking this one when it’s my turn again.

A Little Plot:

Ibo is determined not to be like his lazy, ineffective father. He achieves the success he craves, but at a cost.

The second half of the book deals with the impact Christian missionaries have on Ibo, his family, and his community.

The late Chinua Achebe has no website but there is plenty of information about him and his work online.





Thursday, October 4th, 2018

By  Stephen Markley

The Short Take:

This bleak book about a group of broken people in a dying Midwestern town fell too close to reality for me. The writing and story telling were both exceptional. That’s probably why it left me feeling so hopeless.


Markley’s novel follows a handful of “friends,” jumping between past and present (2013, to be exact) to reveal the actions and interactions that warped them as teens and damaged their futures. It’s powerful from start to finish, artfully connecting the dots between random events until you reach the devastating conclusion.

The Great Recession, America’s military responses to 9/11 (two main characters go to battle), the growth of meth and opioid addition, political gridlock, and social malaise: this is the world these characters grew up in, along with the sometimes stifling influences of living in a small town. Whether these characters pursued goals one considers liberal or conservative, disillusionment was the result.

However, there’s also a mystery here. And, Markey does a darn good job of keeping you in the dark until the shocking revelation.

It’s an excellent book, but not for everyone.

A Little Plot:

The small Ohio town of New Canaan holds a parade for a former star athlete who died in Iraq. Their is no body in the coffin and the high school friends in attendance have few lasting bonds to the dead boy or each other, despite their shared history.

For more about Stephen Markey and his book, click here.


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October 2018