Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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.

Such a Fun Age

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

By Kiley Reid

The Short Take:

This debut novel is fantastic. While it reads bright and breezy it also addresses the issue of subtle racial biases we might not acknowledge. It raises your consciousness but also does a masterful job of entertaining.

Why?

Every page of this book is a delight. The plot has the perfect level of intricacy and twists. The characters live vibrantly on the page with all their flaws and strengths. The dialogue sparkles. And what it has “to say” is done with eye-opening flair.

The book is largely written from the perspectives of the two main characters: Emira, a young black woman striving to transition into full adulthood after college and Alix, a some-what older white mother who’s created a career in confidence building.

Emira becomes a part-time babysitter for Alix’s three-year-old daughter (the wild observations that come out of this child’s mouth are reason enough to read this book). It’s this relationship that drives the main story, shaped not only by current needs and expectations but also a painful incident in Alix’s past.

Putting the inner thoughts and outward behaviors of these two back-to-back highlights how attitudes and expectations differ depending on status and experiences. That they each have a circle of supportive friends provides even more context to the story.

It’s simply a great read.

A Little Plot:

Emira reluctantly leaves a party to provide late-night babysitting when Alix has a family emergency. Alix requests she take her little girl to a fancy local grocery store for awhile (the kid digs grocery stores). However, store security challenges the validity of a black woman with a white child. This event leads to major changes in the relationship between the two.

For more about Kiley Reid and this book click here.

Stolen Things

Sunday, January 26th, 2020

By R. H. Herron

This book surprised me in a positive way. Though promoted as a thriller it read more like a police-driven murder mystery. I thought I had it all figured out half way through. So wrong. Which is good.

Why?

Like many mystery readers I’m accustomed to people outside the police department solving crimes: private investigators, nosy old ladies, and the like. In this case a police dispatcher and her police chief husband were at the heart of the plot. The author drew from her own experiences as a 911 dispatcher to add authenticity (I suppose) to her story.

While completely justified at some points, the continued histrionics of the characters got to me at times. Should a teen’s irritation with her mother draw a reaction equal to when she learns she’s been raped?

However, the plot moved so nimbly with the finger of guilt pointing to first one person then another, it was easy to over look this fault. Herron did a good job of revealing facts over time and leading you to suspect different individuals.

This one was a genuine page turner.

A Little Plot:

Laurie is at her job as a 911 police dispatcher when her next call turns out to be her daughter, Jojo, who has awakened in an unknown place. When the police find her (quickly done) they also find a sleeping pro football star, a dead body, and it’s clear Jojo has been drugged and assaulted.

For more about R. H. Herron and her books click here.

Nothing to See Here

Friday, January 17th, 2020

By Kevin Wilson

The Short Take:

Don’t expect to read a book like this ever again. Wilson has produced a genuine original featuring children that catch on fire (rest assured: they don’t burn up). The growing attachment between these twins and their ambivalent caretaker will warm your heart (pun intended).

Why?

Take a protagonist with a dead end job, living with an uncaring mother (at age 28), and no prospects. Add 10-year-old twins who have an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames when emotions run high. This might not sound like the recipe for a charming, wonderful book but it was thoroughly delicious.

Lillian, the loser heroine, is disconnected yet quirky, with hysterical insights about everything from extreme wealth to parenting to the use of pitchers. The kids justifiably distrust everyone. They realize folks don’t want to be around people who can torch your home and you and act accordingly.

Somehow these three build a relationship based on honesty between caregiver and child, direct conversation, junk food, and basketball. And they are all deeply and permanently changed by their short summer together.

A Little Plot:

Lillian is contacted about a job by Madison, a rich, beautiful girl she briefly went to high school with. Madison is wife to a U.S. Senator aspiring to higher office, and now has his two fiery kids from a former marriage coming to live with them since the death of their mother. They need to be kept cool (literally) and out of sight and. Lillian has no qualifications but she takes the job. Hot times ensue.

For more about Kevin Wilson and his books, click here.

The Starless Sea

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

By Erin Morgenstern

The Short Take:

This mesmerizing tale skillfully weaves various plot lines in a fairy tale of a novel rich in evocative imagery. Morgenstern proved her mastery of imaginative description in The Night Circus. In this outing the complexity of the plot also shines.

Why?

Fair warning: I’m a sucker for books with secret/magical libraries and this one offered up a lulu. It also had a more consistently cohesive plot than her first novel, which went a bit wonky in the final third.

Part mystery story, part love story, part hero’s quest–there’s a lot going on in this book. And its many threads tangle in surprising ways.

Morgenstern also includes interesting musings on the nature of story telling, video games, books, and how they could be enhanced (the protagonist is an avid reader getting his masters in gaming). I found these discussions and insights exciting in their possibilities.

But ultimately, it is the visions Morgenstern crafts, both enchanting and frightening, that give this book its incredible appeal. And the magical library, of course.

A Little Plot:

As a child Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across an intriguing door that wasn’t there the day before but he does not enter. When he finds a book that exactly describes this experience he begins searching for clues. This mysterious book also includes other tales which–like his experience–need to continue. Adventures ensue that encompass everything.

For more about Erin Morgenstern and her work click here. I was particularly interested in her list of favorite books. We hold a lot in common.

Ninth House

Thursday, November 28th, 2019

By Leigh Bardugo

The Short Take:

To say this book centers on magic undersells it. It’s smart, brutal, surprising; part murder mystery, part fish-out-of-water, part hero’s journey. The heroine is perfect: strong in some ways, highly vulnerable in others. I couldn’t put it down.

Why?

Ninth House is no Harry Potter. The magic acts encountered in its pages are raw, bloody, erratic, and used to keep the rich and powerful rich and powerful.

Set in present day Yale University (which Bardugo attended), the famed secret societies (Skull & Bones, Manuscript, Scroll & Key, etc.) all have secret magical practices–a different one for each of the eight ancient houses. One can create unbreakable contracts, another reads the future of the stock market through a living human’s entrails, yet another can create portals to distant places.

A completely unprepared Alex Stern drops into this world, charged with keeping the houses’ rituals and errors secret, and cleaning up their messes. A high-school drop-out and small-time drug dealer/user, she receives the offer of a free Yale education after surviving a horrendous multiple homicide. Though she is unaware of why this fresh start is hers, it’s because she can see ghosts. Ghosts are a problem for Yale and its societies.

She receives some help but the problems grow, become intertwined, and create a knot of tremendous suspicion and fear that she must overcome or die trying.

A Little Plot:

Alex comes to Yale with little more than the clothes on her back and an incomplete, substandard education. She hopes to gain an education that will open doors while handling the tasks of protecting the secret societies.

It’s not an easy combination. And then it really gets tough.

For more about Bardugo and her work, click here.

PS. Though this is supposedly a stand-alone book (and the main story does resolve), Bardugo leaves the doormen for a sequel.

The Secret Commonwealth

Sunday, November 10th, 2019

By Philip Pullman

The Short Take:

This second book in Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy is packed full of unhappy people, schemers, and lots of uncertainty. It ends with a cliffhanger that has you begging for the final volume.

Why?

In his first book of this new series Pullman went back in time, presenting Lyra (the heroic protagonist of the earlier His Dark Materials trilogy) as an infant. This book jumps ahead nearly 20 years. But, unlike with the last book, you really should read the first trilogy Pullman wrote in order to fully understand this book.

Only then will you realize the scope of the tragedy that has befallen Lyra and her daemon, Pan: they can’t stand each other. Pullman’s universe has some similarities to our, for example, Oxford, England is still a center of learning. However, in his created world every human is linked to an external animal that is a physical manifestation of their inner self. Imagine how terrible it might be to be at war with yourself. That’s where Lyra and Pan find themselves.

At the same time, the same oppressive forces Lyra faced at age 12 have returned and are seeking her with bad intentions. The book also includes parallels to current events, with thousands of refuges traveling to Europe and hints of totalitarianism.

The book has heft at 600+ pages, but it moves at a lightening pace which makes it hard to set aside. You’ll finish fast and then bemoan the fact that book three is not already in print.

A Little Plot:

Attending college in Oxford, Lyra constantly fights with her daemon, Pan. The fighting doesn’t abate even when she discovers she is penniless and forces are aligned against her. It only gets worse, to the point that Pan leaves her completely. Now she must find him plus learn why people are after her.

For more about Philip Pullman and his books, click here.

The Family Medici

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

By Mary Hollingsworth

The Short Take:

Hollingsworth’s history of the notorious Medici family is comprehensive but surprisingly boring. Covering several centuries, it presents a lot of information. I wanted more focus on the dirt.

Why?

In my mind–and I suspect many others–the Medici name equates with scandal, corruption, and vice. There’s plenty of that but it’s far outweighed by accounts of the numerous petty wars, financial dealings, and political matters involving the family.

There’s a lot of be learned from reading this book, especially about the uniqueness of Florence as a fiercely proud Republic. However, if you want to focus on the excesses and sins of the Medici’s, a historical novel might be a better choice.

Or maybe I had mistaken ideas of the Medici’s? Hollingsworth’s stated aim is to discredit the idea that they were enlightened rulers of the Renaissance. She shows how their family history was revised and sometimes re-invented to disguise the ugly truth. One small example: Lorenzo the Magnificent wasn’t. That was a title with little meaning or stature in his time.

Read this book, and you’ll get the whole truth about the Medici’s; the good, the bad, the ugly, and the boring.

A Little Plot:

The poor Medici’s come to Florence, build a massive banking network, have ups and downs, create scandals and popes. For more about Mary Hollingsworth and her other scholarly books about the Renaissance, click here.

Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land.

Monday, October 14th, 2019

By Julia Blackburn

The Short Take:

I expected something far different from this lyrical exploration of the lost land that once connected England with the rest of Europe. Blackburn chose to reveal her findings as a personal journey, connected to her recent bereavement.

Why?

I anticipated a factual (and conjectural) non-fiction work about Doggerland and the people who lived there. Beneath the North Sea for the last 8000 or so years, this former land bridge once was home to a variety of animals, plants, and a thriving population of early man.

Blackburn’s book covers that material but in a more abstract and personal way. This included scratchy art by a friend of hers and narrative poems she called Time Songs. Strangely, the poems provided more concrete facts than the prose.

In disappointment, I put this book aside. But after a week or so I went back with a mindset open to her journey and her musings about time. Then I enjoyed it much more.

Blackburn ventures out with various experts who explain different aspects of the Doggerville inhabitants. She also joins others to explore the coast lines of eastern England and western Netherlands and Denmark. This series of nature hikes made me want to visit this area (I would love to go fossil hunting) but it was a piecemeal way to present the material. Still, it had a certain charm, especially when tied in with her thoughts on the vastness of time and the shortness of life.

Both the title and book cover for the USA are different those in her native England. I think both suffered with the change, especially since she mentions the English cover in the text (the title was originally Time Song: Searching for Doggerland). Oh, well.

A Little Plot:

There really isn’t one. Blackburn walks with knowledgeable individuals, sometimes picking up fossils, sometimes talking about what used to be.

For more about Julia Blackburn (and to see the proper cover) click here.

Old Bones

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

By Preston Douglas and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Preston/Child are my favorite thriller writers. This novel begins a spin off series to feature archeologist Nora Kelly (though I thought it was launching a spin-off for FBI Special Agent Corrie Swanson while reading). The search for a lost camp of the ill-fated Donner Party drives the action.

Why?

This is no Agent Pendergast thriller–Douglas and Child’s highly successful (and highly readable) series but a new beginning featuring a familiar, recurring character. Preston Douglas is very into archeology and has written nonfiction in that area. I can’t blame him for putting that expertise to use in a new series but Nora Kelly is too– well–normal. She does things by the book and, as any archeologist will tell you, archeology field work is a slow, tedious process. Even several murders didn’t perk the action up enough.

Agent Corrie Swanson, another character from the Pendergast series who also appeared here, is a different matter entirely. She’s young, pugnacious, driven, intuitive, and a bit reckless. In other words, she’s interesting. Her first appearance in the original series was in the pages of Still Life with Crows, the book that initially got me hooked and is still one of my favorites.

The information on the actual Donner Party is interesting, though also horrific. The authors only made a few tweaks to that reality to make the typical thriller trope work (two parties want the same thing, one is ruthless and evil, the other is the protagonist).

It’s decent escapism fare, but I sure wish this duo would go for the dynamic Swanson over the staid Kelly.

A Little Plot:

Clive Benton tells archeologist Nora Kelly he knows where a lost camp of the Donner Party is and wants her to supervise the dig. Oh, and there might be a chest of gold.

Meanwhile, Agent Corrie Swanson is investigating murders where the upper part of the body is missing. And she thinks Kelly’s dig might be connected.

For more about these prolific authors click here.

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