Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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.

The Kingdom

Tuesday, February 9th, 2021

By Jo Nesbö

The Short Take:

Nesbö writes great mysteries featuring his Harry Hole character. This is a stand-alone that is as noir as they come, unpredictable, and mesmerizing. Be aware that it is very dark, but then that’s what we expect from Norwegian mystery writers.

Why?

While The Kingdom isn’t quite as violent as the typical Hole mystery its pervasive aura of alienation adds darkness to every plot device. The normally positive themes of family love and loyalty become perverted and deadly, creating bonds built on guilt and lies.

The action takes place in a small and isolated community, where everyone thinks they know everything about each other but are often wrong. The town’s atmosphere of hopelessness has a valid basis–a planned new highway will pass it by, removing the meager income provided by summer tourists.

But the return of a long-absent resident brings hope. Carl, brother to the book’s narrator, Roy, has big plans and wants the whole community to be part of them. But there are dark undercurrents of feelings and even darker secrets that could derail everything.

Nesbö’s writing is a delight, revealing one surprise after another–but seldom what you expect to happen. Older brother Roy is a taciturn loner with his astute insights that too often lead to violence. Carl charms with ease but has no problem with deception.

It’s a rich brew of conflicts old and new, with explosive revelations and that’s what keeps this reader happy.

A Little Plot:

After a 15 year absence, Carl comes home with a new wife and plans to build a luxury hotel to make them rich and save the town. His brother has misgivings but stands by his brother. In fact, protecting his brother has shaped his entire life.

For more about Jo Nesbö click here.

Moonflower Murders

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

This is Horowitz’s second “book within a book” mystery and it’s as much fun as the first. Susan Ryeland is back, once again trying to fix a mess that involves the late writer, Alan Conway.

Why?

You don’t need to have read Horowitz’s Magpie Murders to fully appreciate this book, but why miss out on that fun? The author knows how to craft a mystery and in these books he doesn’t stop at one. In the middle of his modern mystery is another one, written in the classic style of the Agatha Christie era, with a main character who is practically a clone of Hercule Poirot.

I particularly like how Horowitz’s “own” writing purposefully out sparkles that of the “book” written by the fictional Alan Conway. It’s yet another clever touch in a well-crafted yet complicated plot. After all, how many mysteries serve up an eight years old murder, a current disappearance, and a fictional murder and then blend them together seamlessly.

The characters–or suspects–are intriguing and not exactly forthcoming when Conway’s former editor, Susan Ryeland, talks to them. She then delves into Conway’s book to discover what the missing Cecily saw that identified the guilty party of that long-ago murder.

Through this reading we learn a lot about the dead Conway and his strained relationship with Susan. And why the plot and writing of his book isn’t top-notch (guess what–it’s not her fault).

Did I mention the characters in Conway’s book are all based on the “real” people who figure into thee old murder and the current disappearance. It doesn’t get much more entertaining than that.

A Little Plot:

Susan is struggling with her small hotel in Greece when a couple approach her and offer a large sum if she’ll come to England to investigate their daughter Cecily’s disappearance. Why? Cecily told them that reading a mystery book by Alan Conway revealed who had killed a hotel guest eight years ago and then promptly disappeared. Since Susan edited Conway they figure she would be able to figure out what happened.

For more about Horowitz, his books, and his many other writings click here.

Spellbreaker

Monday, January 11th, 2021

By Charlie N. Holmberg

The Short Take:

I did not appreciate finding out at the end that it would take a second book to finish this story. And, frankly, this one didn’t impress me enough to want to read another. But you might feel different.

Why?

To be fair, the Amazon listing did include a line of type reading “Book 1 of 2.” A line of type I failed to note. But there was nothing in my ebook. Not even at the end to push you towards the next volume.

Holmberg’s gaslight fantasy/romance is set in a world where magic is real and those born with magical ability must register with the authorities and go through proper training.

About two-thirds of the book is repetitive, with Elsie breaking spells when others demand and trying not to get caught. Over and over. Then the plot twists and turns like an agitated rattlesnake. Good guys become bad guys become good guys. Phew! Maybe if the author had taken less time setting things up the reader could have gotten a whole story with an ending in one volume.

A Little Plot:

Young orphan Elsie only realizes she has spell breaking power when she accidentally causes her orphanage to burn to the ground. Afraid of being punished, she keeps her power secret. However the Cowls know her secret and draw her into a world of intrigue. Elsie struggles to balance her two lives. Then things get really complicated.

For more about Charlie N. Holmberg and her work, click here.

The Invisible Life of Adie LaRue

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

By V. E. Schwab

The Short Take:

Make a deal with a devil and you’re sure to be sorry. Ask for more time and freedom to live as you wish, and you might live forever but no one will remember you. That’s Addie’s predicament and it makes for a fascinating read.

Why?

On the surface not being remembered doesn’t sound so bad. But think again. Imagine a kindly woman invites you into her house for a cup of tea. She turns away to pour a cup and when she turns back screams to see a complete stranger in her house. Or you spend the night with a man and when he awakens he is either shocked out of his mind or tries to act like he remembers you. Not being remembered can be a big problem. And so Addie discovers as the years grow into decades and then centuries.

It’s an interesting spin on the challenges of a lifetime that stretches on forever and the author does a good job of painting a daunting picture of the problem inherent in every-day survival. But her heroine is resilient and exceedingly stubborn.

Of course things don’t go on this way forever. One day someone does remember her. That’s when things get really interesting.

A Little Plot:

Addie wants to escape her little village and the marriage that’s being forced on her. In desperation, she prays to the old gods and one of them answers, offering her time and freedom in exchange for her soul. She jumps at the offer, not thinking about what interpretation her “liberator” may make of her request.

For more about Schwab and her books (her others are aimed at young adult and middle age audiences, this one is absolutely not) click here.

The End of the Day

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

By Bill Clegg

The Short Take:

This novel of friendships gone awry and family secrets is interesting. It would be more interesting if those secrets weren’t so easy for me to figure out.

Why?

Told from various points of view, the overriding themes of this well-written novel are “don’t tell me what I don’t want to know” and “I’m just going to ignore that.” Which make for good story-telling but not necessarily a good life.

The plot revolves around three families: the very rich Goss, their servants, the Lopez, and the middle class Howland. Some relationships between members of these groups are intense. Others are fleeting, but life-changing. Misunderstandings, willful ignorance, and bad assumptions underly everything.

It’s not exactly uplifting material, but Clegg manages to help the reader actually feel relieved when hurtful secrets are relieved, even if his characters aren’t.

A Little Plot:

Dana decides to finally reveal something to a once-dear friend, Jackie, who shut her out 40 years ago. Meanwhile, half-way around the world, Lupita studiously continues to avoid any contact with her family. The story of their younger days holds the secrets that still haunt them.

For more about Bill Clegg and his writings, click here.

Piranesi

Wednesday, November 11th, 2020

By Susanna Clarke

The Short Take:

This dream-like fantasy explores an alternative universe where a man lives in a world of grand halls filled with marble statues and a living ocean. Another person visits him twice weekly and calls him Piranesi, which he believes is not his name. He has questions but can get no answers from his visitor. Mystery abounds.

Why?

Clarke has created a world of incredible beauty, wonder, and complexity then populated it with a solitary man, Piranesi, who appreciates it to the point of worship. Another person, called the Other, consults him for help in finding a great power supposedly hidden within this labyrinth of halls. However, things are not as they seem.

The intricate descriptions make reading this novel an ethereal experience. The countless halls, unique statues, and the birds and fish that fill this universe enchant. Piranesi loves his world but cracks appear when evidence of a third person appears.

What starts as fantasy becomes a mystery which revolves around Piranesi, who is beset by eroded trust and unknown dangers. It’s a fascinating read.

A Little Plot:

Piranesi knows the halls and statues of his hall well. He even knows the patterns of the ocean’s tides. That is why the Other values his help. But while Piranesi willing provides assistance, he begins to wonder what the point his efforts might have. And who, exactly, he is.

While Clarke seems not to have a website this article in the New Yorker tells you all about her. You can reach it by clicking here.

Daughters of Chivalry

Saturday, October 31st, 2020

By Kelcey Wilson-Lee

The Short Take:

This non-fiction book focused on the five daughters of England’s King Edward I who survived to adulthood. Unlike Disney, historians have largely ignored princesses–unless they went on to marry kings. However, Wilson-Lee’s book shows that they had more influence than you might think.

Why?

Eleanor, Joanna, Margaret, Mary, and Elizabeth were distinct individuals. Though the courses of their lives were supposed to be dictated by their kingly father and the men they were betrothed to, they each faced challenges that required personal initiative.

Wilson-Lee largely avoids speculations and makes it clear when she does make a supposition. That can make the reading a touch drier but these women are so interesting you should still enjoy the read. Mary was pledged to the convent at the age of six but lived a life of rich privilege. Prestigious matches were arranged for the other four, though the outcomes were not as expected. Rebellious Joanna did as she wished. Eleanor and Elizabeth were both intellectually curious. Several of them faced moments of crisis where their influence and abilities had important impacts on the lands their husbands ruled. All knew that when they married they would still represent their father’s interests whether at home or abroad and did so willingly.

While focused on more practical matters, the author doesn’t neglect the pomp of Edward’s court, with descriptions of bejeweled dresses and lavish banquets. However, it is the preparation of these young princesses for the important (if often forgotten) roles they would play that takes center stage.

A Little Plot:

Wilson-Lee picks up her tale when Edward I and his wife return from a crusade, bringing a new daughter to join the children the pair left behind. She then follows the lives of the five daughters up to their deaths.

For more about Kelcey Wilson-Lee and her books click here.

The Midnight Library

Sunday, October 18th, 2020

By Matt Haig

The Short Take:

Nora already felt like her life was a mess then it got worse. So she decides to end it all but instead of becoming dead she winds up in a library with countless books describing other lives she could have had–and that she can now try out.

Why?

This starts out as a very depressing read but quickly perks up. The protagonist has burdened herself with numerous regrets over the course of her 35 years. Now she is given a chance to try out those could-of-been lives and see if one of them suits her better than the disappointing one she attempted to leave.

In a way this is a self-help book in the form of a novel. As Nora learns about herself readers can apply those lessons to their own lives. It’s a clever way to reach people who might never visit the self-help section of a store and it nicely follows Haig’s memoir Reasons to Stay Alive.

This insightfulness does not get in the way of the novel’s charm. The writing is lively and bright. The various lives present highly diverse experiences, ranging from rock star to glaciologist; occupations which hold a lot more interest than most people’s lives offer.

I’m sure this is going to be a huge book club book, and deservedly so.

A Little Plot:

Nora’s life is a ball of regrets. Then she gets fired and her cat dies. She decides to commit suicide but the process delivers her to a strange library with a librarian like Miss Elm from her high school days. And Miss Elm offers her the chance to find her best life.

For more about Matt Haig and his books click here.

Troubled Blood

Monday, October 12th, 2020

By Robert Galbraith

The Short Take:

Another engaging Comoran Strike mystery but at over 900 pages, it was far too long. This complex mystery features a lot of characters. And the plethora of horoscope/astrological references could get old. But if you’re a Strike fan, the developing relationship between he and Robin made it worthwhile.

Why?

Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed the book, though I did find myself skimming the astrological stuff. Investigating a disappearance that took place 40 years earlier required some heavy lifting from our fictional detectives (as well as the author). Many associated with the original disappearance had died or disappeared. Except for the daughter of the missing woman, other family members wanted to let the past be past. It posed a major challenge for Comoran and Robin,

As a side note, there were several other cases the detective agency also had to resolve. These largely involved the stake outs typical of most investigative work. I have always appreciated that this series puts the monotony and deep research private investigators engage in on full display. These are not glamorous jobs–except when that exceptional case comes along.

Determining if this disappeared woman was another victim of a serial murder or had met some other fate was one of those exceptional cases.

A Little Plot:

Margot Bamborough disappeared in 1976. The police assumed she was the victim of a serial murderer but the case was never solved, her body never found. Her daughter has a chance encounter with Comoran Strike which leads her to hire him to investigate. Even though he knows the chances of learning anything are slim, he is intrigued enough to take the case. He and Robin Ellacott have a year to figure things out.

For more about Galbraith (an alias for J. K. Rowling) and this series of books click here.

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