Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Crooked Hallelujah

Thursday, August 6th, 2020

By Kelli Jo Ford

The Short Take:

Ford’s highly readable book explores the relationships of four generations of Cherokee and mixed race women. Their lives are not shaped by their heritage but by struggles with poverty, unfortunate choices in men, and the demands of a suppressive “Holy Roller” religion.

Why?

The complex relationships between mothers and daughter provide ample fodder for novels. What sets this book apart is the fierce love that exists, though that love is not always expressed in loving ways.

The book feels more like a series of short stories, with its multiple points of view and occasional overlapping narratives. However, it presents a cohesive story of women who can’t afford to make bad choices yet do so anyway. The main two characters are in constant motion between Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation and northern Texas yet they can’t seem to break out of the exhausting cycle of their lives. Or fully abandon that conservative faith.

By and large the men are missing, useless, or domineering. The dominance emanates from the pastor of a highly conservative church that sees everything except prayer as a doorway to sin and hell. The community of that church stands united against everyday matters such as revealing legs to play basketball or wanting to visit Six Flags.

The main characters each have the strength to resist what others want of them but that strength repeatedly pulls them apart then slams them together.

It’s written simply yet with rich details, and without judgement on the part of the author. You find your own way into the heart and soul of these women, particularly Justine and her daughter Reney. Ford gives you a lot to think about but never preaches or pushes you in any direction. That’s something to appreciate.

For more about the author click here.

A Little Plot:

Teenage Justine is frustrated with the many restrictions placed on her by the faith of her mother and grandmother. She has small rebellions, like hiding a Rolling Stone magazine under her mattress. Then she sneaks out one night to see a boy.

The City We Became

Saturday, July 25th, 2020

By N. K. Jemisin

The Short Take:

After reading Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” science fiction trilogy (all Hugo Award winners) I could not resist starting her new one. This time the action takes place in New York City and the heroes are people of color (mainly women) who rise up to protect the city–and their respective boroughs– from destruction by another universe.

Why?

First of all–no worries–the story in this volume has a satisfactory conclusion followed by a simple set up for the premise of the second book. You don’t have to commit to all three books to enjoy this one fully. And it is enjoyable.

You can read the whole book as a metaphor for our times, or at least a wishful metaphor. People who don’t have natural trust in each other come together to fight a greater evil–a power that is trying to destroy their city. There’s a human avatar each for money-conscious, savvy Manhattan, gentrified Brooklyn, working-to-succeed Queens, and hard-nosed Bronx. There’s also a frightened avatar for Staten Island–a borough overlooked with unfortunate consequences.

The respective boroughs each provide strength and power to their chosen avatars, though the avatars have to figure this out for themselves. There is also an avatar for all of New York City but no one knows who or where. The enemy is just as anxious to find and kill this one as the others are to save and support.

Jemisin celebrates New York in all its diversity, creativity, and history. Her characters treasure that which provides character and color to their communities. It’s no accident that Starbucks “belongs” to the soulless enemy. Authenticity is key to a city’s soul, and chain operations offer none of that.

It’s a rich and rewarding book. One of my short reviews here doesn’t do it justice.

A Little Plot:

A attractive man of ambiguous ethnicity gets off the train in New York City to start a new life. However, he has visions of another city layered upon the one he is walking through. Then he realizes he has forgotten his name, his family. He is becoming something new, but does not know what, why, or how.

Soon he’ll meet another who can offer him some guidance, but not before he faces the enemy alone.

For more about Jemisin and her work, click here.

Death in Her Hands

Friday, July 17th, 2020

By Ottessa Moshfech

The Short Take:

The words I saw associate with this book were mystery, suspense, horror. The author has many awards to her credit. What I read was the unraveling of an elderly woman who had a tortured life and is wrapped in loneliness. Oh joy.

Why?

Obviously this book was not my cup of tea but it was certainly interesting. Vesta Gul finds a note in the woods: “Her name was Magda. No one will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no body.

Living in a remote cabin with only her dog, Vesta has no personal relationships of any kind. Her imagination is unoccupied (she often refers to the state of her mindspace) so she fills it with her invented story about this Magda: her family situation, her friends, her possible murderer, everything. Vesta eventually determines to learn more facts about Magda, but a minor search effort on the library’s internet provides no information, only additional inspiration for her fantasies.

To call Vesta an unreliable narrator is a vast understatement. Over the course of the book you learn her marriage is not as she–at first–presents it. Eventually you begin to doubt things she experiences in the real world. Are they real? They certainly don’t make sense.

Maybe I would have liked this book a bit more if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, where everyone is suffering from increased loneliness. The writing is solid and it certainly gave me plenty to think about, but they are not thoughts I wanted to have.

A Little Plot:

I’ve pretty much done this above. So go back and read it again if you wish.

The Splendid and the Vile

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

By Erik Larson

The Short Take:

Larson penned a fascinating portrait of the first year Winston Churchill served as Prime Minister. It focused on him, his family, the people he worked with, and the true grit Great Britain showed when they stood alone against Germany.

Why?

I do not care for military histories but greatly admire the accessible non-fiction works of Larson, which focus on people instead of battles. At first I thought it was strange to include only a single year, but the events that both opened and closed the period from May 10, 1040 to May 10, 1941, made that choice a wise one.

I learned so much I knew nothing about, such as Mass Observation, a project where regular people recorded their emotional reactions to breaking events along with how others felt. I had never heard of Hess’s strange flight, or Churchill’s odd sartorial choices like silk robes or a light blue onesie.

Of course, Churchill was known for his oratory, but it was thrilling to read his words in context; to understand how he had the ability to present people with terrible news yet still leave them hopeful and even encouraged. He was a champion who could not envision defeat (and also could not accept that the USA wouldn’t help).

I also greatly enjoyed the inclusion of entries from the diaries of Goring and Goebbels. Their flat out disbelief that Winston’s government would not cave to them like every other country they had invaded was almost amusing now that we are so many decades removed.

Most important, Larson’s writing was so approachable it almost read like a novel. This might be why he stated upfront that every word in quotes was actually said or written. This is a history. And it is fierce, frustrating, and alive.

A Little Plot:

On the day Germany overthrows the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, British PM Neville Chamberlain recommends to the king that Churchill be named his replacement. King George had his doubts but did as asked. That was the beginning of Great Britain’s darkest year, when over 45,000 died at home. Churchill was the man who kept hope alive.

For more about Larson and his work click here.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

By Patricia Highsmith

The Short Take:

Over half a century old, this psychological thriller is unlike any other. Set largely in sun-drenched, languid Italy the frantic workings of Tom Ripley’s mind bring strife and death where least expected.

Why?

The plot of this book is very noir, however its setting, humor, and characters are anything but. Tom Ripley comes to Italy on a mission but soon his motivations change. A true sociopath, he carefully watches others, looking for any sign they might turn against him so he can act first.

He’s a young man in the company of two other young people: Marge, an aspiring poet, and the would-be artist Dickie, the object of Tom’s mission. Their days are awash in sun, martinis, boating trips, and pleasure. But Tom wants more — more of Dickie’s attention, more of Dickie’s lifestyle. So he begins to reinvent himself.

Highsmith keeps you on Tom’s side even as your horror at his actions grow. He’s a new kind of American dreamer–amoral, smart, ruthless. I could not imagine how this book would end. And the ending really surprised me. I’ll be reading more Highsmith in the future.

A Little Plot:

Tom is contacted by Dickie’s father, who is will to pay for Tom to go to Italy to convince his son to return to America. Tom readily agrees, but when he find his mission will not succeed, his plans change.

The Mirror and the Light

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

By Hilary Mantel

The Short Take: I loved Mantel’s first two historical fiction books about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) but had a much harder time enjoying this one.

Why?

As usual, Mantel’s prose impressed, her portrayal of Tudor England made it come alive (I particularly liked the meal descriptions), and Thomas Cromwell continued to be a complex, fascinating character. However, I knew what lay in store for Henry VIII’s most valued councilor and that knowledge had me pushing this book aside.

The lowly born Cromwell was hated by the English nobility. His king, who he served loyally, was capricious and often in pain due to a wounded let that wouldn’t heal. Surrounded by enemies, both domestic and abroad, he worked tirelessly for his country yet was often suspected of collusion with other realms. To counter this he maintained a wide network of spies and was careful with every word and move.

Mantel’s Cromwell seemed to anticipate his end, even as he rose in power and position. He often reflected on his youth and wondered what kind of man he was–like his father or more just.

He cared deeply about the religious reformations that then swept through Europe. Often accused of being a Lutheran, he indeed had secret sympathies in the direction. That commitment to his faith lay behind much of his activities.

There’s a lot to this man, but this volume felt overly long. The “action” seemed in the background while Cromwell’s reflections took center stage. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed the book (except the inevitable end), but it could have been a tighter read.

A Little Plot:

With Anne Boleyn newly executed, Thomas Cromwell feared Henry VIII would do the same to his daughter, Mary, who might be involved in plots against him. Cromwell’s protection of the girl alarmed some, irritated others, and put him in danger. But he persisted.

For more about Hilary Mantel and her books, click here.

Real Life

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

By Brandon Taylor

The Short Take:

This book was an emotionally tough read. A young, gay Black man from the South studies biochem at a Midwest college. He maintains an emotional distance, even from his friends, whose casual racism occasionally jolts him. It’s a significant book but not for everyone.

Why?

This book is gut wrenching. You feel the universe of angst and wariness protagonist Wallace always carries, exposed through the events of a single weekend. Introspective by nature, and remote due to his unhappy childhood, he typically doesn’t spend much time with his lab mate friends. But this weekend he does and it creates a whole new level of self awareness.

He wonders aloud if seeking this masters degree is just a way of avoiding “real life.” That one out loud observation sets off a chain of interactions that raises more questions.

Taylor (who is also gay, Black and Southern) offers exquisite prose and detailed observations of the reactions humans display through minuscule expression changes. If you’re looking for plot, step away. If you want a deep, fascinating, character-driven book that leaves you aching–read on.

A Little Plot:

Wallace observes his friends gathered by the lake and decides not to join them when one sees and beckons him. He doesn’t tell them that weeks of work in the lab has been destroyed (sabotage?) but that event is reflected in all his actions over the weekend.

Highfire

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

By Eoin Colfer

The Short Take:

Outlandish and funny, this adventure featuring a resourceful teen boy, a 100% evil Constable, and a millennia-old dragon is one wild ride. But be warned, it is loaded with profanity.

Why?

Colfer is known for his Artemis Fowl series aimed at younger readers. These books put magical beings in the real world. This adult outing does the same, with the main difference in the swearing and immoral behavior (though I don’t recall Artemis Fowl being very well-behaved). It’s raucous, outrageous, and a lively read.

Highfire is plenty of fun but absolutely nothing more. However, in these times, a bit of fun is very welcome.

A Little Plot:

Vern, a lonely dragon, hides from humans in a Louisiana swamp. When he is spotted by a Squib (the teen protagonist) he intends to kill the kid. A corrupt cop is also out to get Squib, for nefarious reasons. But Squib is a survivor.

Saint X

Monday, March 9th, 2020

By Alexis Schaitkin

The Short Take:

A beautiful college co-ed disappears on the luxurious island of Saint X (fictional). Sound familiar? That’s where the similarity ends. This is a deep dive into the psyche of her then seven-year-old sister as well as an exploration of the reasons behind that fateful night.

Why?

This is no mere murder mystery. It highlights the deep divide between classes, something obvious on most (all?) Caribbean islands. The well-to-do come to relax and indulge while full-time residents serve drinks and smiles for tips. It contrasts privilege and promise with poverty and resignation by telling the stories of two people.

Little sister Claire, who worshipped the much older Alison, is obsessed with her death, compulsively searching the internet for information about the people involved and on-line speculation. When she has a chance encounter with one of the accused she becomes his stalker. Her mental state and actions made this reader uncomfortable but, like a car wreck, it was hard to look away.

Clive, one of the two men last seen with Alison, finds his world in shambles after he is released as innocent. His voice, his story provides the counterpoint to Claire’s.

Tourists strive to gain some authenticity by seeking a local experience. Locals see opportunity in fulfilling those requests. Schaitkin’s compelling book shows how this interaction can lead to a single decision that destroys many lives.

The Short Take:

Golden girl Alison and little sister Claire are enjoying winter break at a lux resort. Alison attracts the attention of every man but she is more interested in a young men who serves drinks–and the frisson of possible danger she experiences.

For more about this book and it’s author, click here.

Followers

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

By Megan Angelo

The Short Take:

What at first appears to be a fluff of a novel about social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram is actually provocative, thoughtful, somewhat frightening, and highly readable.

Why?

Angelo’s debut novel follows two storylines that eventually merge. One, set in 2016-17, centers on a woman who makes her friend a celebrity through social media strategies and posts. The other, set in 2051, focuses on a whole community where the lives of all residents are not only streamed but curated (think The Truman Show on steroids).

The juxtaposition of these two plot lines explores the evolution of interactive technology and how it ties into the devolution of genuine human interaction. However, this is no dystopian 1984. It addresses big issues with a light touch. It’s amusing as well as alarming, with characters that you find yourself liking even though they clearly believe the ends justify the means, no matter how unethical. They have story arcs that result in an emotional, and satisfying, ending.

Both the past and the future scenarios pose the question: Is one’s existence valid if it isn’t seen? It’s something the main characters struggle with.

The final third of the book brought a major plot twist that I found delightful but will not delve into here. Let’s just say it involved a “beautiful wall” but not where you’d think.

A Little Plot:

Instead of writing her novel, Orla posts silly click bait articles about celebrities for her social network employer. Then her roommate, Flo, enlists her aid to become famous for being famous.

With her every move (and those of everyone she knows) streamed live, Marlow moves through her life passively, thanks to the drug Hysteryl provided by her media sponsor. Then she learns a secret about her family and everything changes.

For more about Megan Angelo and her book click here.

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