Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

There There

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

By Tommy Orange

The Short Take:

This is possibly the most powerful debut novel I’ve ever read. It explores the interrelated lives of a dozen Urban Native Americans living in Oakland, California, the community where Orange himself grew up.


The title comes from a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland after she revisited her childhood home, “There is no there there.” This was not dismissive but a reference to the fact that everything had changed, becoming unrecognizable. Native Americans living in big cities often struggle to recognize themselves. Their traditions can seem anachronistic. Their lives are often filled with obstacles. Their history is written in blood.

Orange’s book gives a brief recounting of that tragic history, delivered in a wry voice yet devastating to read. The stories of his 12 protagonists are also devastating: alcoholism, violence, defeat. But there is also hope, love, and passion. You care about them all, want a better life for them, and pray they survive the upcoming powwow. Yeah, you know early on that something will happen there and it won’t be good.

It’s an incredible, exceptional, challenging book. Everyone should read it.

A Little Plot:

There are many plots and subplots in this dense novel. However, all paths seem to lead to the Big Oakland Powwow taking place at the coliseum.

Memphis Rent Party

Friday, July 6th, 2018

By Robert Gordon

The Short Take:

Gordon draws from published and unpublished interviews and personal experience to create this multi-faceted look at the Memphis music scene in all its diversity and decades of creativity. If you care about American music, this is a must read.


Few people go beyond Elvis Presley and Beale Street when they think of music from Memphis. However, the vein of Memphis music is much deeper and richer, encompassing soul, blues, punk, rockabilly, and more. Gordon gives you a quick tour of some of the legends (and some on the lesser knowns) in that music tradition from Jerry Lee Lewis to Alex Chilton.

Each chapter portrays a different musical giant, often using interviews published in long-gone music magazines with additional, contemporary insights. Even if you are a music aficionado, names like James Carr and Tav Falco might not be familiar to you. However their stories and voices deserve to be recognized.

Some of the other artists feature include Sam Phillips, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Jeff Buckley, and Cat Powers — about 20 unique musical talents in all.

The writing is breezy and accessible throughout. However, for a life-long Memphis like me, Gordon’s last page was pure magic.

A Little Plot:

Plot doesn’t apply here. Gordon puts his interviews in an order where they tell a story, peeling back the many layers of Memphis music influences. But each chapter also stands on its own.

For more about Robert Gordon and his books, click here.

The Word Is Murder

Sunday, June 24th, 2018

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

Horowitz’s meta-mystery is a delight! He obviously gets great pleasure out of turning the murder mystery genre upside down, as proven by his last book, Magpie Murders. This one is totally different and even more of a joy to read.


Horowitz knows murder. In addition to writing for various TV murder series, including Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, he has a string of killer books.

This one is different from any of them, with Horowitz himself as the narrator. It’s a novel, alright, but the various Horowitz factoids sprinkled throughout are true. For example, he did write a screen play for a Tintin sequel for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. It’s a refreshing and amusing approach.

He’s not the detective. That would be the opaque and occasionally infuriating Daniel Hawthorne, a consultant to the police. Horowitz fills the Dr. Watson role, only he’s exceedingly ambivalent about his part and doesn’t really care much for Hawthorne.

The mystery is complex enough to satisfy the most discerning fan but it’s the wit in the writing that makes this book so very special. The word is that Horowitz plans to make the pairing of his quasi-fictional self and Hawthorne an odd couple crime series. I certainly hope so.

A Little Plot:

Ex-cop Daniel Hawthorne was a consultant for Horowitz during his writing of the television series, Injustice. Now Hawthorne wants Horowitz to write a book about him solving a murder case. He already has one to work on: an older woman made her funeral plans and was murdered only six hours later.

That’s hard for Horowitz to resist.

To learn more about this prolific writer, click here.


The Maw

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

By Taylor Zajonc

The Short Take:

I cut thrillers a lot of slack: the characters and formula are largely predictable and I accept that. However, this book was a huge disappointment. Its concept ticked the right boxes — a group of people searching for a prior lost expedition in a dangerous and mysterious cave. The writing did not.


I read about this book in the Wall Street Journal and thought it sounded like a worthy read. Boy, was I mislead! The writing was poor and the plot had its share of holes. Worse yet, the pacing was such that even when one disaster after another beset this group of cavers you didn’t get that “can’t put it down” feeling. It was more like “who cares?”

Do yourself a favor and read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth instead. It’s quoted several times in this book and those were the best parts.

A Little Plot:

Milo, a Georgetown history professor,  becomes part of a team exploring a massive cave in Tanzania. The supposed goal is to find clues regarding the fate of an explorer from a century earlier. What they actually find is much more.

For more about the author, his books, and whatever click here.


Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

By Michael Ondaatje

The Short Take:

Ondaatje had me at his first line: “”In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” What followed did not disappoint. This story of two abandoned teens, their caretakers, what came later, and what happened before alternately beguiles and shocks.


Ondaatje is a poet as well a a novelist, so outstanding prose and thoughtful writing are expected. What’s more interesting is the layers he adds and then peels away to reveal (or not reveal) facets of his characters and their actions.

The title refers to the minimal lighting used during WWII in London; only enough to guide vehicles that must travel at night on the roads and Thames as well as mislead Nazi planes looking for bomb sites. That same dim lighting barely illuminates the shadowy activities and motivations of the vanished mother when her son begins to investigate.

Nathaniel, also known as Stitch, provides the first person narration. When his parents leave for Singapore, he and his sister, Rachel, are surrounded by people they’ve barely known or never met. They engage in activities inappropriate for teens — or most people. They are unsure of everything, not unlike all of London, where rubble and bombed buildings are everywhere.

The author lulls you with delightful prose about activities like fly fishing or greyhound racing, then drops a story-telling bomb. The exploration of these activities provides character insights in clever, unobvious ways. Then those shocks make you realize nothing is quite what you thought.

However, this is not a traditional mystery or spy story. This book is not about the destination or a neat solution, it is about the journey. And, the journey is very rich indeed.

A Little Plot:

Nathaniel and Rachel are left in the care of a strange man they call The Moth. Their parents went to Singapore for a year, but the teens soon discover this isn’t true. The what and where of their parents is a mystery — almost as mysterious as The Moth’s friends, who now surround them.

As an adult, Nathaniel strives to solve those mysteries. And, understand why his mother did what she did.

I did not quickly find a website for the author, but for additional information on him and his works, click here.

Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

By Michael Massing

The Short Take:

This exceptionally lengthy book is well worth the time. It focuses on the Dutch humanist Erasmus and Martin Luther, who was first inspired and later repelled by Erasmus’ writings. It also delves into 1500 years of Christian theology and philosophy, providing readers with exceptional context.


Massing brings a journalist’s in-depth reporting skill and approachable language to what could be an overwhelming subject. That’s especially true for someone like me who had no idea who Erasmus was (though the name sounded familiar) and knew not much more about Martin Luther (beyond the 95 theses nailed to a church door).

Not only did I learn about these two prolific and original writers/thinkers, I was exposed to the people and works that inspired them, the forces arrayed against them, and the other religious reformers they influenced. Massing also writes about the deadly repercussions that arose as a result of their writings, from the individual deaths of heretics to the 100,000-plus peasants who died fighting for a freedom inspired by Luther’s writings.

Massing displays the warts as well as the wisdom of both men. Luther consistently showed the courage of his convictions, but was vile in his written attacks on those who disagreed with him. Erasmus would too often equivocate out of fear for his life. Both had personal habits and complaints that were not admirable. But what great minds!

And, in Massing’s skillful hands, what a great history of Christianity’s first 1500 years as well as the fatal discord between these two titans!

A Little Plot:

That doesn’t really apply here. The book largely alternates its chapters between Erasmus and Luther, taking events in largely chronological order. It also briefly covers how their influences impacted religious belief (and more) up to the present.


Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

By Salman Rushdie

The Short Take:

This delightful, engrossing novel is a Chinese Box of stories — one inside the other inside the next. Fantastical yet also deeply philosophical there are reflections of  Rushdie’s personal experience as well as our current chaotic society. Not to mention magical jinn (genies).


This book is a few years old (I nabbed my copy from a remains discount table) but so excellent I wanted to give it a few extra pixels of attention than my “What Else I’m Reading Now” page.

Humorous, bawdy, satirical, insightful — this spellbinding a novel has it all plus. More fairy tale than magical realism, the novel’s roots reach 1001 years into the past, its epilogue takes place 1001 years in the future and the War of the Worlds is right now.

However, all the madness of people suddenly floating and jinn appearing in our world is actually about the battle between reason and unreason. From the arguments of two genuine, ancient philosophers (Ibn Rushd and Ghazali) to the bizarre battle for earth that takes place between the dark Ifrit jinn and one human-loving jinn queen, greater  themes are presented and explored.

It doesn’t get much better than this. But that’s what I expect from Rushdie.

A Little Plot:

The powerful princess jinn Dunia loves the mind of the great Ibn Rushd and becomes human to give him lots of children. She returns to her kingdom of Peristan and the passage between the two worlds is blocked, until 1001 years later when the “strangeness” begins.

For more about Salman Rushdie and his work, click here.

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.


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