Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Bishop’s Pawn

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

Berry’s 13th Cotton Malone thriller wasn’t a lucky outing for me. By switching to the use of first person and a single point of view he both slowed things down and made narrative repetitions more obvious. That’s too bad, because the basic idea for this novel was very solid.


This book’s release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr.’s assassination, which occurs April 4th. Berry created a conspiracy behind King’s death, with plot twists and surprise revelations throughout. FBI operatives past and present are the major players, with secrets to protect at any cost.

While the novel opens in the present, the bulk takes place 18 years earlier. This predates all the other Malone outings. In fact, it’s Malone’s first assignment with the Magellan Billet. He’s a rookie and it shows.

Berry always takes a historic reality and wraps it in imaginative conspiracies and dangerous conflicts. I worried this particular reality was too recent and too raw for that treatment. However, his story line was respectful and even believable. By incorporating some of the genuine disgraceful tasks the FBI carried out during the J. Edgar Hoover years, Berry reminds readers of some largely forgotten history.

Unfortunately by eliminating the multiple points-of-view of his previous novels, Berry limited what could his characters could do and say, which led to some stilted scenes and repetitive dialogue.

A Little Plot:

Cotton Malone is asked to retrieve a rare gold coin from a recently sunken boat. He’s barely gotten in the water before the shooting starts and the chase begins. The numerous antagonists all have different objectives — none of which are good for Malone’s well-being. And, it all revolves around King’s assassination.

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

Queens of the Conquest

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

By Alison Weir

The Short Take:

This hefty biography of Matilda, the wife of William the Conquerer, and the next four Medieval queens of England (as well as the frustrated Maud, who should have been queen) was long on facts and short on conjecture — as a history should be. You learn quite a bit but it’s a rather dry read.


When you go back 1000 years in history there’s not a wealth of material to draw from — though Weir includes well over 100 pages of footnotes and bibliography. The result is a presentation of innumerable facts about a queen, but not much that gives you a feel for her personality.

A litany of signed charters, gifts to religious institutions, the founding of abbeys and monasteries, and travel documentation forms the bulk of the book. However, there is also fascinating history from a time that doesn’t gain the attention of, for example, the Tudor dynasty. Plus, the focus is on women who aided, financed, and often acted as ruling regents for the kings they wed.

Weir’s biographies typically focus on English royal women. She also writes the occasional historical novel about them, as well. I would love for her to take these queens as subjects for a novel. I know her history would be sound and it would certainly enliven the story telling. Until then, I’m glad I went on this journey with her.

A Little Plot:

William the Conquerer takes over England, but first he fights more than one Pope over the right to marry Matilda. His son has problems getting to marry his Matilda (not her real name, by the way), as well. Their daughter, Maud, is deprived of her crown by her cousin but wages war to insure that her son becomes king next.

For more about Weir and her books, click here. By the way, her books have different covers in England from the USA.


Saturday, March 3rd, 2018

9780553448122_custom-d8cf7964d63e6360d66a5d8d7678e514019531f0-s700-c85By Andy Weir

The Short Take:

Once again Weir creates a sci fi world built on solid scientific facts. Even better, his foul-mouthed, brainy, and fiercely independent protagonist is a woman — a rare occurrence in this genre. But be aware, there’s a lot of science in this book — mainly chemical and engineering. You might actually learn some things as well as be entertained.


This wild action ride of a novel takes place in and around Artemis, a moon colony some 100 years in the future. Like in his debut novel The Martian, this near-future setting make it more relatable to the present day; plus it gives Weir a chance to again demonstrate how scientists and engineers would/could/can creatively solve the problems of living on another, deadly world.

That’s where the similarity ends, however. Jazz, his plucky and slightly criminal heroine, is always out to make a quick buck. Then she gets a chance to make a million of them. That turns this book into a cliff-hanging crime caper where the challenges and risks she faces far outweigh those of any bank or casino heist ever imagined.

This also means a fair amount of information about things like welding in a vacuum, the dangers of mixing various gases, pressure issues, and the like. I admit to glazing over a time or two but it was worth shouldering through to learn what happened next. And, that was what was really exciting about this book. The Martian was pretty straight forward — a guy trying not to die. This time Weir concocted a plot with many twists and turns that had as much to do with human nature — greed, loyalty, ambition, love — as with solutions to deadly situations.

Not to mention Jazz is one heck of a character.

A Little Plot:

Rebelling against constant admonitions to utilize her substantial potential, Jazz labors as a delivery person with a not-too-profitable smuggling business on the side. That could all change when a richer-than-Midas Artemis resident offers her a million to destroy the operating capacity of a lunar plant that produces aluminum — and the colony’s air supply. Don’t worry, he doesn’t want anyone to suffocate. It’s business.

For more about Andy Weir and his books, click here.


Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

By Lisa Halliday

The Short Take:

This novel is amazing! It consists of two very different sections that seem to have nothing in common until a third section brings them together in all their asymmetry. It’s an outstanding first novel. Heck, it would make an outstanding 10th novel.


From the very first paragraphs you know you’ve found something special. The main character, Alice, is sitting outside, avoiding reading her book with “long paragraphs and no quotation marks.” While not the same words they form a fun-house mirror image of Lewis Carroll’s opening for his Alice. This 20-something Alice indeed goes down the rabbit hole, starting an affair with a 70-something famous and acclaimed writer — a mirror image of Philip Roth.

Part romance, part training for the budding young writer, this section, Folly, glitters with humor, engaging dialogue, and observations on love, life, and the arts. It practically dances forward, brightly skimming the surface of emotions and relationships.

The second section, Madness, couldn’t be more different. It centers on a thoughtful, mild-mannered Iraqi-American, Amar. While detained at Heathrow Airport he reviews his life and his inner self. Here the dialogue is serious, situations are dangerous, but hope endures. Reflections on religion, his family’s history, and news reporting are all a part of his emotional inner journey while he goes nowhere at the airport.

The two sections seem to have nothing but the faintest of connections — until you arrive at the final part of the book. Then you want to immediately go back and start reading all over again, because your second reading will be even richer and more rewarding than the first.

A Little Plot:

This has been largely covered above: A May-December affair between Alice, a young would-be writer, and a very successful and famous one. This is followed by the travails and deep thoughts of Amar, an Iraqi-American with passports for both countries who has come up against endless bureaucracy at Heathrow Airport and uses that time to review his life through his memories.

It’s all about asymmetry — in ages, in circumstances, in everything.

City of Endless Night

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Halleluia! This Agent Pendergast mystery/thriller gets back to basics: bizarre murders, misleading theories, and Special Agent Pendergast using his formidable mind and unbreakable cool to save the day.


I’ve read all the Preston/Child Pendergast novels but was ready to throw in the towel if there was another bogus melodramatic volume. In fact, I was dreadfully anticipating the return of Pendergast’s already-twice-dead evil brother.

Whew! This is a legitimate crime spree story. In fact, there are only minimal references to the ongoing Pendergast saga. The only complaint I have is that Pendergast is a minor character for most of the book, ducking in and out of the action until the rousing final chapters.

Recurring characters Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta and reporter Bryce Harriman carry most of the plot. Not to worry, though — again there is no need to have read any previous books. The actual murders are spectacular mysteries. They would seem impossible to carry off, except they happen. It’s all pretty cool.

A Little Plot:

The headless corpse of a young woman is found in an abandoned warehouse. Turns out she’s the playgirl daughter of a tech billionaire. That’s just the beginning of the headless bodies. It’s up to D’Agosta and Pendergast to determine not just who the murderers are, but how many of them there might be, and what possible connection their could be.

For more about Preston & Child and their many books, click here.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

By Philip Pullman

The Short Take:

This prequel to Pullman’s highly acclaimed (and controversial) His Dark Materials trilogy does not disappoint. He sets the background for his dust story — a strange material that may prove consciousness is matter — causing stress for the church, which now dominates the state. However, it is the rousing adventure of a young boy determined to rescue an infant girl that forms the heart and soul of the narrative.


Be aware, this is the first book in a new trilogy. However, Pullman isn’t going to pull a George Martin or Patrick Rothfuss — making us wait five or more years for the next installment. The second book is already written. In addition he claims that, while the first book is prequel, some of this trilogy’s content will be sequel. If you haven’t read his earlier trilogy, reward yourself by doing so while you await publication.

The heroine of his previous trilogy, Lyra, is a mere baby in this volume who only does the usual baby things. Twelve-year-old Malcolm Polstead is the story’s tentpole — an extraordinarily strong, courageous, and resourceful character you immediately fall in love with.

While some characters from His Dark Materials return, many others are new. Also returning are the cruel tactics of the controlling Magisterium, the earthly knowledge of the Gyptians, and the relationship between individuals and their daemons (animals that reflect a person’s spirit in some way). It was particularly fun and revealing to read how the infant Lyra and her daemon interacted.

Though positioned as a young adult novel, Pullman’s writing is richly satisfying for all ages. And, his imaginative alternative universe is second to none.

A Little Plot:

Malcolm Polstead is immediately enchanted by the baby Lyra, mysteriously placed in the protective care of a nearby priory of nuns. He feels driven to protect her, which makes him an alert observer/spy. The dangers besetting the infant aren’t only human, floods are sweeping the lands.

For more about Philip Pullman and his works click here.

God: A Human History

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

9780553394726By Reza Aslan

The Short Take:

Aslan’s highly-readable book is not a mere history of religion but a thoughtful look at how we, throughout history and prehistory, have consistently humanized our gods/God while reaching for the divine. Drawing from psychological, philosophical, theological, historical and other sources he explains why this happens, from earliest religious beliefs to the present. It’s fascinating.


Aslan is a religious scholar as well as a believer whose personal spiritual search has led him from Muslim to Evangelical Christian to Sufism. His scholarship is on full display in this volume, which has almost as many pages of bibliography and notes as it does regular text. In fact, I highly recommend reading the extensive notes. I set two bookmarks so I could read the related notes right after finishing a chapter. That added significantly to my appreciation.

Note that this is not a book for those looking for confirmation of their personal religious beliefs. Also note that if you go looking for corresponding language to passages he cites in your King James Bible you won’t necessarily find them. His sources are much older. However, if you are interested in the evolution of religious beliefs and haven’t already read extensively on the subject this is an excellent place to start.

A Little Plot:

The humanized god has been a part of religions from their earliest times. Aslan starts with the earliest evidence — cave paintings — and moves forward through history.

For more about Reza Aslan and his books click here.



Sleep No More

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

9780525520733By P. D. James

The Short Take:

Wish I’d read/reviewed this book a month earlier — it’s the perfect Christmas gift for mystery lovers. Several of the six stories in this short story collection by the incomparable P. D. James have holiday themes. All reflect her brilliant, literary style.


I usually pass on short story collections, but when it’s P. D. James an exception is in order. These stories, the oldest of which dates back to 1973, did not disappoint. They just made me miss this legendary writer more. They aren’t all straight-forward whodunits. Sometimes you know the who but not the how or why. Sometimes the bad guy gets away with it. You can always count on James to bring you fresh takes on one of the most popular genres in fiction.

A Little Plot:

Doesn’t really count here, but you can count on people dying from unnatural causes.

If you are unfamiliar with P. D. James (no one should be), learn more about her by clicking here. Sorry it’s Wikipedia. Don’t know why her estate hasn’t dedicated a website to this formidable woman and writer.

Lilli de Jong

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

31752152By Janet Benton

The Short Take:

Benton’s saga about the perils and prejudices besetting an unwed mother in 1880s Pennsylvania leaves a lot to be desired. There are far too many McGuffins driving the plot, a cast of potentially interesting yet underwritten supporting characters, and more about lactating than I ever expected to find in a novel.


I get it: life was hard to impossible for unwed  mothers over a century ago. Still is in some parts of the world. Yet when the back-of-book notes Benton includes expounding on those problems are more interesting than the story itself, something is askew.

The plot is revealed through journal entries by the title character and includes a lot of philosophizing, which is actually more interesting than the unrelieved dreariness of the plot. It’s one bad thing after another; and actions and motivations don’t always make sense, not only for Lilli but for most of the people impacting her life.

Benton notes that she wrote this book while nursing her own child, and lactation is a major plot device for the novel. However, breast developments consistently outweigh character development. It just gets tedious.

All that said, you could not make a stronger case for chastity until marriage than Lilli de Jong. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale. Unfortunately it was written in the wrong century.

A Little Plot:

Lilli’s fiancé has decided to leave their rural village to seek employment in the steel mills. He will send for her when he is settled. Unfortunately, he leaves her a parting gift that makes Lilli a pariah to pretty much everyone.

For more about Benton and this novel, click here.


Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

185216By Gregory Maguire

The Short Take:

In typical Maguire fashion, this enchanting novel creates an imaginative backstory for the toymaker in E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker. However, it is so much more than that. The main character’s journey from fairy tale (or hallucination) to reality makes him an outlier with a unique way of seeing others but a limited ability or desire to “see” himself.


The child Dirk dies but comes back to life — a life that is vaguely haunted by two characters: one representing German romanticism, the other Hellenic mysticism. Dirk has little to no interest in them and rejects the few wisps of memories that waft through his life. However, those he encounters care very much, particularly Doctor Franz Mesmer (the real originator of the idea of hypnotism or mesmerization).

Dirk is not presented as a person of action, passion, or past. He is not necessarily a likable character yet you keep hoping for that moment when what is hidden becomes seen — not so much by others but by Dirk himself.

The prose is even more rich and lyrical than usual for Maguire, and the frequent music references offer more than just a nod to Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet. It’s a lovely, romantic read — achingly sad yet ever hopeful.

A little Plot:

Dirk lives in isolation and poverty with a man and woman deep in the woods. One day he is taken into the woods by the man, who intends to kill him. However, while Dirk is chopping a tree it falls on him, killing him. Only he isn’t dead. But something might have happened.

(Warning: the hard-cover’s front flap write-up gives away the whole story. Boo on that.)


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