Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Heroes

Saturday, July 13th, 2019

By Stephen Fry

The Short Take:

Fry gives the adventures of legendary Greek heroes like Theseus and Heracles a fresh retelling, losing none of the information but adding in delightful asides and cultural references. Their quests and feats leave modern superheroes behind. After all, they had to deal with vengeful gods as well as monsters and impossible demands.

Why?

As a child I loved Greek mythology but the kid-friendly versions I read were not nearly as Game-of-Thrones-ish (and more) as Fry’s retelling. His faithful (in content) retellings include the flaws and sometimes shocking details. What’s more, you realize just how rip-roaring these ancient tales are.

Fry’s modern language style gives you all the details but in a much more engaging fashion. His copious footnotes bring extra texture to these grand stories, stitching the legends of old to current events and locations.

In addition to the heroes mentioned above you’ll find Jason, Orpheus, Atlanta, Perseus, and more. Plus all the sidekicks, interfering gods, myriad monsters, and minor players (who often have major impact). It’s a terrific read that now has a permanent place on my bookcase.

A Little Plot:

Regardless of the hero you can bet someone sets him (usually a male) an impossible task in hopes he dies first. Don’t expect that to happen. But there’s usually tragedy at some point.

For more about Stephen Fry and his work (which includes much that is quite funny) click here.

The Sentence is Death

Saturday, June 29th, 2019

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

Horowitz follows up his first meta murder mystery with a worthy sequel. Once again he (Horowitz) is the narrator, filling the role of a willing-scribe Watson to the Sherlock of ill-mannered PI Daniel Hawthorne. This time it’s the murder of a divorce lawyer they’re investigating, with a generous cast of suspects.

Why?

If you’re familiar with the BBC series Foyle’s War, Injustice, or Midsomer Murders (early episodes on the last one) you know this man writes a good mystery (and they’re merely the tip of his prodigious output). In this delightful followup to his last mystery, Horowitz again inserts himself as himself (at the time he was writing for Foyle’s War) alongside a completely fabricated murder tale.

As before, Horowitz is expected to follow a murder case (to be) solved by Hawthorne and turn it into a novel. Once again, Hawthorne keeps his distance emotionally and refuses to share anything about his past. So you get the mystery of Hawthorne alongside the murdered lawyer.

Horowitz offers breezy prose with a generous helping of wit and humor. Plus, the mystery is challenging enough that you’re unlikely to guess the murderer, even though Horowitz plays fair and does not hide any of the clues. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these first two books. In The Sentence is Death, Horowitz states his deal with Hawthorne is a three book contract. Here’s hoping that is true in real life, too.

A Little Plot:

Divorce Lawyer Richard Pryce is found dead, killed with a bottle of highly expensive wine (and not solely by a bonk on the head). The chief suspect is a literary, snobby writer recently humiliated in a nasty divorce case ( her victorious husband was Pryce’s client).

There are a lot of other secrets woven through the plot besides whodunit, by the way.

For more about Horowitz and his many works, click here.

Washington Black

Monday, June 17th, 2019

By Esi Edugyan

The Short Take:

Excellent story about a child field slave who is chosen as the manservant of an eccentric naturalist and inventor, and the adventures that ensue. At times disturbingly brutal, it’s also filled with great wonder.

Why?

Life that begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados is bound to be laden with pain, humiliation, and fear. Eleven-year-old George Washington Black, called Wash, knows this well. His only refugee is Big Kit, a large, fierce woman whose protection comes with its own set of risks.

Wash is a brilliantly drawn character and his evolution over the course of Edugyan’s novel is full of thoughtful evaluations of his surroundings, exceptional understanding of others, and growing self-awareness. His transformative journey begins when he becomes the manservant of the plantation owner’s brother, Christopher Wilde. Wilde treats him more as an assistant and servant than as a slave; and their relationship continues to evolve.

When a tragedy strikes that could end Wash’s life, Wilde initiates an escape that sends them on a remarkable journey which includes stark arctic wilderness and Moroccan deserts. However, don’t be misled by the cover art. This no Around the World in 80 Days.

Despite all the unexpected opportunities that come Wash’s way, fear of recapture is never far away. Even as he strives for true freedom, he recognizes that as a black man his world will always be limited, his talents largely unrecognized. All Edugyan’s prose sings, but in Wash she has created a soul that sings as well.

A Little Plot:

Young Wash Black is made the manservant of Christopher Wilde. When Wilde discovers Wash’s artistic talent, he becomes much more and his universe begins to change and expand, not unlike a hot air balloon.

Furious Hours

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

By Casey Cep

The Short Take:

This absorbing non-fiction book debuts an author who knows how to keep you turning those pages. It includes a string of maybe-murders, the audacious trial of the man who killed the maybe-murderer, and Harper Lee’s efforts to write a true crime book worthy of the name. And it satisfies on every level

Why?

Cep has taken a sprawling fraud and murder case and made it thrilling and completely fascinating. What’s particularily interesting about this is that Harper Lee set out to do the same thing but struggled with the details for ages and ultimately quit. Lee’s research and ensuing doomed efforts play a big role in this book but it is Cep’s masterful storytelling that keeps you engaged.

The book is divided into three parts, with overlapping elements the advance the story. The first concerns Reverend Willie Maxwell. Several of his family members met with suspicious deaths and every single one of them was heavily insured — by the Reverend. The second section revolves around Tom Radney, the lawyer who helped the Reverend collect his death benefits but also defended the man who shot him.

The last section is devoted to Harper Lee, but is not limited to her interest in this trial. Cep covers her whole like, including the writing of her one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. In particular, her contributions to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood are covered in length, and they are eye-opening.

Another thing that makes this book particularly rich and interesting is Cep’s inclusion of important background information, like predatory insurance sales practices and the voodoo religion. She gives you the whole story, and what a great story it is.

A Little Plot:

The dashing Reverend Willie Watson takes out a lot of life insurance policies on family members. A number of them die mysteriously. Even though he’s a black man in 1970s Alabama, he stays free. Is it voodoo?

A Clockwork Orange

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

By Anthony Burgess

The Short Take:

I initially chose to read this to see how it differed from the Stanley Kubrick movie, anticipating making only a short entry under What Else I’m Reading. As I got into it, I realized how powerful this book was and wanted to share more.

Why?

Two warnings: 1) Expect lots of graphic violence and sex. 2) Expect a lot of invented slang, much with Russian influence. However, due to #2, the impact of #1 is diminished somewhat. For the first 20 or so pages I often referred to the handy glossary of nadsat (teenage) language for interpretation but after a bit I could read normally as it’s mainly the same words.

This is fundamentally a story about good and evil and the importance of choice. It’s also about political manipulation, urban decay, and an accepted culture of violence. Set in a near-future (for 1963), dystopian England, the world of our youthful narrator, Alex, and his droogs (friends) is dreary at every level. Regular people stay behind locked doors at night, while teen gangs prowl and prey on anyone who catches their fancy.

Alex describes a couple of their days of ultra-violence and other activities before the plot really kicks in and the tables are turned. Then turned again. It’s strong stuff, but Alex’s musings on good and bad are provocative.

A Little Plot:

Alex happily considers himself the leader of his little band of violent thugs but when he oversteps, his droogs turn on him. Prison looks to be his future, but there is an alternative.

Anthony Burgess has long since left us but his story is interesting. If you want to know more click here.

Supermarket

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

By Bobby Hall

The Short Take:

Hall is imaginative and the story line of this novel about a would-be-writer working in a grocery story is fresh, but the writing of this psychological thriller felt like a first draft.

Why?

I was attracted to this book by its cover, which reminded me of my old paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye, with its yellow type of a plain red background. Plus it was a debut novel and I liked the premise. I can’t say I hated this novel because I did enjoy the story arc and the ideas behind it. However, the writing lacked any kind of polish.

Before reading, I did not know Bobby Hall is also a rapper who goes by the name Logic. I listened to some of his numbers online and he certainly can write tighter, better prose. I have to wonder why his editor and publisher didn’t work to refine this work. Perhaps they figured purchases by his music fans alone would take care of their bottom line? If so, they did him a great disservice in the name of financial gain.

In his acknowledgements he admits to having a short spurt of binge reading and then deciding to write a novel. He was gently advised he couldn’t do it. I can’t agree with that assessment but a little more work and care would have elevated this novel substantially.

A Little Plot:

Slacker writer Flynn is deeply depressed after a big breakup and is living at home. Miraculously he gets a huge publishing offer for a novel that takes place in a supermarket, so he gets a job in a supermarket for material.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter

Friday, April 5th, 2019

By Kate Morton

The Short Take:

This mystery wrapped in a ghost story has all the right elements: overcoming adversity, false love, true love, tragedy, lost treasure. While there are quite a number of important characters and the story hops through times from 1862 to the present, Morton pulls it all together.

Why?

Morton’s charming language and fresh choices in verbs and adjectives make her novels a delight to read. However, the many characters and time settings of this particular novel almost had me pulling out the red yarn and pinning connections. I rather wished she’d eased up on the complexity of her story; with fewer characters I could get to know the remaining ones much better, and I did want to know them. They deserved the attention.

The point in common for every one and every time within this novel is a charming house on the upper Thames River called Birchwood Manor. An artists retreat, a school for young girls, refuge for a young family during World War II, inspiration for a haunted man, and site of a continuing mystery–it plays many roles but feels like “home” to all it serves.

The chance discovery of an artist’s satchel is the impetus driving all that follows, with many flashbacks to events that took place far in the past as well as things still happening at Birchwood Manor. The items in that satchel, as well as the bag itself, connect to different stories in Birchwood Manor’s history.

Morton is a skillful storyteller. In lessor hands this could be a real mess. However, I think it would have been much better if she’d narrowed her focus.

A Little Plot:

Professional archivist Elodie is handed a satchel that has been lost for more than 150 years. One of its contents is an artist’s sketchbook with a drawing of a house that looks exactly like the one her mother described in her fairy tales. The coincidence, and Elodie’s strong sense of familiarity with the place, sends her on a search. As we go with her, Morton reveals the house’s past through its inhabitants, including its ghost.

Ten Caesars

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

By Barry Strauss

The Short Take:

Strauss provides a concise look at the rise, rule, and fall of ten of Rome’s most important emperors. Since he devotes roughly 30 pages to each, it’s little more than a thumbnail sketch which might be perfect, or not.

Why?

I did learn a fair amount from this book, and also learned some of what I thought I knew was incorrect (I’m talking about you, Robert Graves’ of I, Claudius.). But ultimately I was disappointed by the shortness of the entries. I wanted more.

Strauss certainly makes his subjects approachable. His language is casual and contemporary, not at all what I’m used to in a history. It’s not often you find a pop cultural reference in serious books, but there was Game of Thrones cited to describe a battle between several would-be-Caesars.

The emperors covered include Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan. Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine. Some were little more than names to me before reading this–especially Trajan and Hadrian, whose names are attached to ruins/structures I’ve seen. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, I was ashamed that I had never even heard of his Meditations, which (Strauss claims) is the second most read book in the world after the New Testament. Of course, it’s now on my ever-growing “must read” list.

I did appreciate that he made a strong effort to include the women who propelled, advised, and influenced his emperors. Reading about the mothers, wives and other women around these powerful men helped to shape your understanding of them.

However, the greatest enlightenment for me came from how he portrayed the Roman people. I understand their philosophies, values, and other attributes far better than before. That was the best thing of all.

A Little Plot:

It starts with Augustus and ends with Constantine. However, Strauss also provides some connecting information to help with the gaps that occur between certain Caesars. That helps one’s understanding of how and why different ones came to power.

For more about Barry Strauss and his books, click here.

The Malta Exchange

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

I enjoy thrillers and Steve Berry has been a long time favorite, but not this time. The “twist” was obvious from early on in this story of intrigue involving the Knights of Malta and the election of a new pope.

Why?

Berry started his series featuring former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone with a terrific thriller built around the Knights Templar. For his 14th book in the series he returned to one of those religious/martial groups: The Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta (depending on the century). I had high hopes due to the subject matter, but this series has gone stale.

This seems to be a recurring problem for thriller writers. It’s not that Berry isn’t finding new historical “secrets” or theories to exploit in his books, but the increasing weight of the main characters relationships and backstories simply drags things down. I had high hopes Berry was going to start a new series with The Columbus Affair, which starred an interesting investigative journalist, but that turned out to be a single outing.

Sadly, this book was so disappointing it will probably be the last one of his I read.

A Little Plot:

A cardinal with popish ambitions is given information that could make his dreams come true. However, American and British operatives are paying close attention and are suspicious of his actions.

For more about Steve Berry and his books, click here.

Lethal White

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

By Robert Galbraith

The Short Take:

Yet another enjoyable entry in the Comoran Strike detective series, with so many worthy suspects you’ll keep changing your mind about whodunit. Overlapping plots and schemes add a welcome complexity to the traditional detective genre. The continuing saga of the relationship (or lack thereof) between Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott is a nice touch as well.

Why?

J. K. Rowling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, continues this highly readable detective series with style and panache. She portrays Cormoran Strike as a burly, scowling, aloof man in near constant pain due to the pressures of his prosthetic leg. Yet his underlying humanity comes through loud and clear, endearing him to readers as well as various ladies in the series. Robin Ellacott is an equally interesting character, with natural detecting instincts but a lack of experience that sometimes gets her into trouble.

By setting this mystery in the middle of London’s hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics, Rowling/Galbraith also gets to involve radical left and anarchist characters as a contrast to the government ministers planning the big event while also scheming against each other. It’s a big cast and you can almost imagine the multiple lengths of red yarn connecting them all on a complicated investigation board. There’s a lot to keep straight but this mystery is worth the effort.

A Little Plot:

Billy, an obviously mentally disturbed young man, bursts into Strike’s office insisting that as a child he saw a murder. Almost immediately Strike is asked to stop both a blackmailer and a rival politician from attacking Jasper Chiswell, the Minister of Culture and a Member of Parliament. In a coincidence worthy of Dickens, these two cases have a connection.

For more about Robert Galbraith and her/his books, click here.

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