Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Harlem Shuffle

Thursday, November 11th, 2021

By Colson Whitehead

The Short Take:

Whitehead is a brilliant writer and his exploration of the various paths a man can choose in 1960s Harlem is no exception: struggling entrepreneur, small-time crook, or an uneasy alliance between the two. Regardless, it all comes with a price.

Why?

Carney, the protagonist of this fascinating novel, wanders the streets at night imagining moving his family into the nicer apartments he sees. During the day he works hard to pay the rent at the furniture store he owns, enhancing his income by accepting and selling items “that fall of the truck” from hustlers he knows. It’s all a part of Harlem Shuffle, where everything and everyone works to move money around, be they crooks, businessmen, policemen, or politicians.

The dichotomy of Carney’s life–half way between upstanding citizen and player–forms the background of this character study. He performs a dangerous tightrope act as he tries to keep his family and business safe while fulfilling the conflicting demands of small time hoods and out-and-out gangsters.

Whitehead paints a vibrant picture of Harlem in the 1960s, from the street excitement surrounding performers at the famed Apollo Theater, to the intricate interlocking motivations and concerns of different movers, shakers, and fakers. And Carney displays drive, smarts, and nimbleness as he charts his way through the various unsavory tangles he is unwillingly sucked into. Because this novel is filled with crime-driven suspense as well as vibrant atmosphere.

One thing I love is the careful attention Whitehead pays to the furniture lines and designs of the day. Carney draws comfort from the quality of the products he sells and is eager to represent even more prestigious lines even though blocks away Harlem burns as citizens protest another police killing. Another positive attraction is his portrayal of secondary characters. Without giving you a litany of details he quickly shows you who people are and what they want. The grit, the contradictions, the striving of are all on display.

All in all a fantastic read.

A Little Plot:

Carney is exceptionally close to his cousin, Freddie. Unfortunately, Freddie is also close to one of the criminal elements of Harlem and involves Carney on the peripheries of a planned heist without his consent. This not only exposes Carney to possible arrest but also upsets other gangs, who come looking for answers as well.

For more about Colson Whitehead click here.

Project Hail Mary

Sunday, October 10th, 2021

By Andy Weir

The Short Take:

If you liked Weir’s The Martian you’ll probably enjoy this one, too. Once again a person is in space, alone, and fighting for survival. Only this time the fate of the human race depends on his success. There’s lots of science-based solutions, a smart-aleck attitude, and a big surprise.

Why?

Even if you’re not a big science nerd (and physical science is not my jam) Weir’s novel is highly readable. His light, humorous touch and straight-forward writing style combine with genuine science to create an absorbing read. This is his third novel and I’ve enjoyed all three of them.

I acknowledge he uses some tried and tested sci-fi tropes: Protagonist Ryland Grace wakes up not knowing who, where, or why he is. But his journey of self-discovery is fun to witness. Once a memory is triggered there is a chapter on that memory. These reveal the who, where, how, and–eventually–the why of his present circumstances

He thinks logically but occasional makes mistakes with unwelcome consequences. Then something totally unexpected happens. That’s when the fun really starts.

A Little Plot:

Ryland Grace wakes up alone with two dead bodies. In space. He has no idea where or why but quickly learns life on earth depends on him. To visit Weir’s website click here, but know that it very out of date.

The Paper Palace

Saturday, August 28th, 2021

By Miranda Cowley Heller

The Short Take:

This debut novel reads well and unfolds nicely. There was too much child molestation for me (I have a low threshold), but the insights into the feelings of one victim were worth the read. Sections alternate between a couple of days in “current” time at a rustic family retreat in Cape Cod–not the posh part– and the life story of our narrator and her antecedents. It’s a wild trip.

Why?

Despite the previously mentioned bits that bothered me, I really enjoyed this book. The writing sang, with gorgeous descriptions. The pacing pulled you through, making it hard to put the book down. Her characters were complex yet she didn’t lay it all on the line. The narrator’s mother is an excellent example; she seems fully revealed yet parts remain hidden, just like a real person. Of course, the author doesn’t veer too far from her own reality: her husband is English and her family spent summers in Cape Cod. This adds to the immersive realism of the plot.

At first it’s hard to understand the narrator’s behavior, which could destroy her marriage and family. But the story of her life makes everything clear and you understand the powerful opposing emotions she faces.

It’s a strong book.

A Little Plot:

Elle sneaks out of a family dinner to have sex with Jonas, her childhood soulmate. The subsequent guilt she feels for betraying her husband and family fights with her burning desire for this life not lived. The novel explains why.

Surprisingly for someone who worked at HBO for some time, the author has no readily available website. However there are many interviews on line that reveal more about her.

Gold Diggers

Monday, July 19th, 2021

By Sanjena Sathian

The Short Take:

A unique twist on the coming-of age story, with young people ingesting the powers of gold to further their own ambitions–but to the detriment of their associates. Highly enjoyable as well as being surprisingly informative.

Why?

The children of moderately successful Indian immigrants in this book are under immense pressure to succeed as Americans but also to embrace the Indian culture of their parents. To achieve this dichotomy they go to special programs, participate in many extra curricular activities, and more. Some even consume gold–stolen gold that is specially prepared and dissolved.

This practice impacts both those who take the gold and those who’s golden trinkets are stolen. Are these effects real? The book treats them seriously, or at least seems to. Several cover blurbs referred to this novel as funny which I didn’t get at all so maybe the joke’s on me. Regardless, it is a fascinating read that not only delves into the semi-contemporary lives of second generation American-Indians (it begins in the Bush era) but also explores the possible existence of an actual Indian gold digger in the ’49 California gold rush.

I doubt there’s another book with anything close to this unusual take on ambition, family, relationships, and loyalty.

A Little Plot:

While smart enough, Neil doesn’t have the drive or ambition of his ethnic Indian contemporaries. This disappoints his parents as well as himself. When his closest friend, neighbor Anita, becomes secretive and starts achieving new successes he wonders about the change and begins to investigate. Then he helps himself to the same solution.

For more about Sanjena Sathian click here.

We Begin at the End

Thursday, April 29th, 2021

By Chris Whitaker

The Short Take:

A nimble plot and incredible characters make this novel shine. It’s surprisingly noir for a book set in a California coastal resort town and sunny Montana, it combines elements of thrillers, westerns, and Dicken’s style tragedy. I could not put it down.

Why?

The two central characters couldn’t be more different–or more intriguing. Walk, the sheriff, has never left his small town and exudes loneliness. Thirteen-your-old Duchess is a self-described outlaw; a tough as nails spitfire who fiercely protects her five-year-old brother. The siblings need protection: Oliver Twist didn’t experience the constant danger these two endure and adults continually fail them.

Whitaker has a different way of describing his settings, more reflective of the emotions of the observers than a physical description. It can take a bit to sink into it but then you appreciate the texture it adds to the characters and plot.

And it is some plot. Even though you get a solid feeling “something isn’t right,” the author still manages to delivers surprise after surprise as the mystery begins to untangle.

A Little Plot:

A long ago death and a fresh murder seem to be linked to the same man, a newly released convict who was Walk’s best friend. The convict was also the boyfriend of Duchess’ mother, now an unstable substance abuser with abundant beauty and equally abundant bad life choices.

There’s also a dark and dangerous real estate developer bent on revenge. Whitaker gives you a lot to work with.

For a bit more about the author and this book, click here.

Klara and the Sun

Monday, April 19th, 2021

By Kazuo Ishiguro

The Short Take:

Kindness, the sun, and love power AF (artificial friend) Klara; a narrator so compassionate and complex she out-humans the humans around her. Set in the near-future, this novel has sci-fi elements but it is solidly focused on faith, hope, and charity.

Why?

Ishiguro explores how our increasing reliance on algorithms, data, and computer intelligence might affect our humanity. Yet, he presents this through the eyes of a completely loving and caring AF. It’s hard to say who shows more soul–the AF Klara or her human owner, Josie.

The major points that shape the narrative are slowly revealed, almost like a series of mysteries. However Klara, with her impressive intuition, realizes what is happening and what needs to be done about it before we do.

It’s a familiar yet different world and Ishiguro introduces it to you gradually. Eventually you learn what “lifting” is, why AFs matter, the cause of Josie’s mysterious illness, and much more. All the pieces fall seemlessly into place and the final picture is one of the brilliant light of genuine love.

It’s a beautiful book and perfect for these times and the questions we face.

A Little Plot:

Klara hopes to be purchased (young teens seem to be the only owners of AFs), and carefully observes and thoughtfully interprets the actions of all the humans around her to better prepare herself for her future role. When Josie selects her she is delighted even thoughJosie warns her that she is sometimes sick. Klara remains undaunted and devotes herself to Josie’s well-being, in every sense.

You can learn more about Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro by clicking here.

Solutions and Other Problems

Wednesday, April 7th, 2021

By Allie Brosh

The Short Take:

Brosh’s unique yet insightful views on family, pets, depression, and a host of human foibles will keep you laughing and make you think. What could be better?

Why?

Quirky drawings, surprising observations, and amazing creative thinking; these are Brosh hallmarks. And they’re on grand display in her newest book. Take the title, for example. It makes you smile, then you stop to think: Many solutions do result in other problems. That’s solid Allie Brosh.

I’ve always been a fan and was saddened when depression took her away from regular postings on her blog. However, she’s found her way into work again, and this is her second book.

Her strange drawings are oddly expressive. But it’s the subjects she explores, like dealing with questions and reactions when a dog starts retaining water in enormous quantities. These will have you giggling like a maniac as you nod your head in understanding. You might not have been there exactly but you get it completely.

A Little Plot:

Her stories range from childhood experiences to the here and now. There’s no order to their presentation, though a couple build on each other.

Brosh’s publisher agreed to let her put one chapter of her book on her old blog. Such a treat! And you can explore her other fantastic creations in the blog archive, or simply click on her favorites. But do click here to visit.

The Four Winds

Friday, March 26th, 2021

By Kristin Hannah

The Short Take:

While the depiction of Dust Bowl/Great Depression poverty was interesting, the unrelenting suffering of the primary character wears you out.

Why?

Having read two other books by Hannah I should have been prepared for misery piled upon misery. I wasn’t. From a hateful family to a distant husband to the horrors of the Great Depression–it was one thing after another, all faced by a woman who felt she got only what she deserved.

The writing is fine and the pacing is good. Maybe in happier times this book about the struggles of people who have been reduced to a footnote in history might have resonated. Now it only reminds one of how far we haven’t come.

A Little Plot:

Elsa’s prosperous and very proper family clearly look down on her, constantly telling her she is unattractive and incapable. No wonder she sees her own future as an empty wasteland. In a single act of rebellion, she goes out one night in a flapper-stye dress and meets a man. The outcome is not good.

For more about Krisstin Hannah and her books, click here.

A Thousand Ships

Monday, March 15th, 2021

By Natalie Haynes

The Short Take:

This novel tells the story of the Trojan War from the view points of its women. Plus it lays the blame for this 10-year long bloodbath squarely at the feet of it’s instigator–and it isn’t Helen.

Why?

Haynes’ unique perspective gives voice to the women and goddesses who play supporting roles in Homer’s epics. Why? Because even though these women did not go to battle (except for the Amazons), their stories are also heroic.

Written from many different perspectives, these women’s stories are not only drawn from portrayals in the Iliad and Odyssey but other classical writings that expanded their stories, such as the plays of Euripides. And Haynes provides character as well as plot: Penelope’s letters to her husband, Odysseus, develop a caustic tone as his journey home from a long war threatens to take even longer. Cassandra, who knows the future but is never believed, continually bears intense anguish due to her deadly knowledge.

Highly accessible and exceptionally informative this novel delivers a solid retelling of the war and its aftermath. It’s no feminist screed but does put a spotlight on the bravery, pain, vengefulness, pride, and patience of these women who are also heavily impacted by the death and destruction of this war.

A Little Plot:

It’s the Iliad and the Odyssey with some extra. You probably know the highlights of the plot.

For more about Natalie Haynes and her books click here.

Nights at the Circus

Friday, February 26th, 2021

By Angela Carter

The Short Take:

This 1984 classic is incredible: a feminist fantasy, magical realism writ large, whip smart, deliciously naughty. It’s a full plate and night not be to your taste but I gobbled it up.

Why?

I’m so glad I stumbled across a reference to this complex and highly entertaining novel. Set right before the 1900s become the 20th century, it follows a winged (maybe) aerialist and her pursuing journalist from London to St. Petersburg to Siberia.

It’s filled with entertaining absurdities like waltzing tigers as well as acute observations on women’s rights–many of which are still applicable. It’s literally stuffed with points of interest, quotable lines, religious allusions, and truly fascinating characters. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction when it came out and 28 years later was voted the best book to ever win that award. that’s saying something since books have been winning that award since 1919.

It’s a rich, lively, thought provoking read. Try it.

A Little Plot:

Journalist Jack Falser suspects the supposedly winged trapeze artist Fevvers is a fraud, despite her being the toast of Europe. Now she is joining a circus bound for St. Petersburg and then Siberia and he decides he must follow her, not just for the story but for love.

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