Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Satanic Verses

Friday, September 13th, 2019

By Salman Rushdie

The Short Take:

WOW! What an epic journey this is. Rushdie’s most controversial novel is a masterpiece of wit wrapped around observations on the contradictions in life, alongside scrutiny of modern culture, colonialism, racism, Islam, and the nature (maybe) of good and evil.

Why?

This book is so rich and nuanced it defies easy description. Plus, I suspect some things whooshed by my limited comprehension. The action begins with a bang thousands of feet in the air, moves between India and England, and journeys through time into the world of faith. It is remarkable.

Rushdie earned a fatwa (rescinded in 1998) as well as literary accolades when this book came out. I wondered where the offense lay (or if I would even recognize it), but it’s right there in the title. Historically there is strong evidence Mohammed did make a pronouncement (satanic verses) allowing three female sub-gods, which he quickly retracted–saying it came from Satan instead of his usual spiritual contact, the archangel Gabriel. That first, mistaken pronouncement is now thoroughly denied.

Rushdie weaves that contradiction throughout this work, especially with his two main characters: Gabriel Farishta, a famous Indian actor who plays many characters drawn from the Hindu religion, becomes the personification of good. And, Saladin Chamcha, a thoroughly Anglicized voice-over actor who can’t get on-screen roles due his ethnic looks, turns into both a literal and figurative devil.

But that’s just part of the story. Gabreel’s dreams wind around the formation of a religion roughly like Islam as well as an ill-fated pilgrimage to Mecca led by a butterfly-clad woman. He also pursues with passion the icy Allelulia Crone. Saladin is arrested as an illegal immigrant, horribly abused, and finds his wife is heavily involved with another man before he turns into a giant, horned devil.

Sub plots and a host of intriguing characters enrich this novel even further. This is not one to rush through. It should be savored. Probably repeatedly.

A Little Plot:

Gabriel and Saladin are the only survivors of an airplane bomb, gripping each other as they fall thousands of feet into the English Channel–and live. Their subsequent lives take very different paths but their destinies remains intertwined.

House of Salt and Sorrows

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

By Erin A. Craig

The Short Take:

Inspired by the Grimm fairytale about 12 dancing princesses, this novel starts like a Disney movie but evolves into a Stephen King horror story.

Why?

Since this book begins with the burial service for the fourth of 12 sisters to unexpectedly die, you have a pretty good idea bad things are in store. However the descriptions of the locations, clothing, and various incidentals dazzle in their sumptuous, other-worldly beauty and beguile you into dreamland. Then that same level of graphic detail begins to describe the horrific dreams and hallucinations haunting the protagonist, now-second-oldest daughter Annaleigh.

In fact, the descriptive quality of this debut novel (aimed primarily at young adults) is its strongest point. Other factors seem underdeveloped: Important characters change their attitudes for no discernible reason. The plot, while appropriately full of surprises, seems muddled and hole-ridden.

Of course, when you’re writing about magical happenings you can get away with a lot. But I did find myself going “Really?” more than once.

A Little Plot:

Eight surviving sisters, along with their father and stepmother, have stayed in mourning far too long. The discovery of a secret door allows the girls to exchange their somber clothes for party wear as every night they escape to a different celebration.

For more about Craig click here.

Early Work

Monday, August 26th, 2019

By Andrew Martin

The Short Take:

This slim novel focused on millennial would-be-writers doesn’t paint a flattering picture. Between the drugs, drinking, and cheating not a lot of writing happens. However, Martin’s succinct prose and clear-eyed portrayal of his characters, their inner confusion, self-absorption, and various foibles carries you through.

Why?

It’s a feisty little book populated by people who haven’t fully gotten on with their lives. They’re still in grad school, or medical studies, or struggling with that first book. They live in a bubble of white privilege that ignores the outside world but rejoices in inside jokes and great literature: the names of literary stars pepper everything.

The primary story builds around Peter, a would-be writer who lives with a driven and gifted medical resident, Julia. Her stability would seem the perfect anchor to compensate for his lack of direction and industry. However he becomes attracted to the wild Leslie, also a writer, whose behavior edges into the self-destructive zone.

Most of the book represents Peter’s point-of-view. He has a lot of opinions but no serious commitment to any of them. He feels he deserves complete fulfillment but doesn’t really know what that means.

I realize I’m making this book sound awful. It’s not. The characters are frustrating, but they’re “that age,” with the (often family supplied) financial security to explore options and take risks beyond most people’s dreams.

This book isn’t for everyone, but it’s good.

A Little Plot:

Peter is perfectly content in his five-year live-in relationship with Julia but when he meets the visiting Leslie he feels a sexual connection that intrigues him. Since all he does is teach a composition class at a woman’s college and walk his dog, he has plenty of time to see where this goes. And, he does.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

By Ingrid Rojas Contreras

The Short Take:

Danger lurked everywhere in Columbia during the Escobar era. Contreras draws from her own childhood experiences to weave a powerful tale of two girls: the pampered Chula and the family’s maid, Petrona, who comes from a guerrilla occupied slum. It’s an incredible, eye-opening debut novel that gives insights into today’s immigrants, too.

Why?

Merely looking in the wrong direction could lead to kidnapping or death in Columbia when narco-king Pablo Escobar ruled. The wealthy hide in walled communities. The poor scratch out a miserable existence in crowded slums, where various guerilla groups recruit and kill at will.

Seven-year-old Chula and her sister live in comfort, though any venture beyond their walls is fraught with danger. Even from their window they can see smoke from bombings. Their 13-year-old maid, who must work to feed her family, fears for their own future in the slums.

These two stories intertwine in a masterpiece that brings all the contradictions, terror, and violence of the Escobar years to stunning life. Gut-wrenching events, frightening news reports, and impossible choices impact both girls. While there are light-hearted moments as well, the second half of the book is a rollercoaster of drama. You wish it were all made up. Unfortunately, for thousands that is not the case. Escobar is dead, but new narco-kings exist.

A Little Plot:

Chula is fascinated by their new young maid, who seldom speaks and moves so carefully. Petrona has learned that to survive she must be as invisible as possible Yet even that is not enough to protect her. Nor do the walls surrounding Chula’s family protect them.

For more about Ingrid Rojas Contreras click here.

The Darwin Affair

Monday, July 29th, 2019

By Tim Mason

The Short Take:

This audacious historical fiction thriller (set in 1860) doesn’t limit itself to “cameos” by real, famous people, they are also among the lead characters–both good and bad. Rather cheeky, but I loved it.

Why?

As someone who has read many non-fiction books about evolution and natural history, the title alone sold me. However, it proved to be a rollercoaster of a thriller–enjoyable in every aspect.

But Darwin is just the beginning of historical figures in this thriller, which includes the prime investigator. After several characters refer to Inspector Charles Fields, the main protagonist, as “Mr. Bucket” I had to investigate. A quick google and I learned Charles Fields was very real, and Dickens wrote about him! He was also the inspiration for Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

As the story progressed, other prominent people of Victorian times show up: Sir Richard Owen (bad guy), Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (not a good guy), and Prince Albert (good guy) are three historical figures with major roles. Of course, where there’s Albert, you must find Queen Victoria. Thomas Huxley, Charles Dickens, and Karl Marx also appeared.

While you often encounter historical fiction where dialogue and minor actions are attributed to known people, it’s unusual to read a book where famous figures are central to a murder conspiracy that is complete fiction. It’s a bold decision and a tasty one.

Of course, there are fictional characters as well, including the horrific bad guy Decimus Cobb (sporting a name Dickens would approve of) who is as ghastly as he is tenacious and skillful.

It all amounts to a fantastic read, with a plot that revolves around Prince Albert, Darwin, and the newly published Origin of the Species. Candy for me. How about you?

A Little Plot:

Charles Fields is helping to guard the carriage carrying the queen and her consort when a known ruffian raises his hand. Is it a gun? Fields reacts immediately, collaring the man but realizes it was a ruse and dashes off to protect Victoria and Albert. When the real would-be-assassin is apprehended he returns to the decoy only to discover the man’s throat has been slit and one ear surgically removed.

A few questions to bystanders and Fields believes he has stumbled upon a conspiracy that might reach into Buckingham Palace itself, but the rich and mighty are determined to stop his inquiries.

This is Mason’s first adult novel but he has written many plays. For more information about him and his works, click here.

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.

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