Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

White Fire

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Hooray! Preston and Child have forsaken the continuing stories of their recent books for a thriller than stands alone. Agent Pendergast is as frustrating (to others) and fascinating (to readers) as ever. Plus this outing has connections to Sherlock Holmes, a string of mysterious deaths 150 years ago, and a modern arsonist. All that keeps those pages turning.

Why?

Preston and Child write excellent thrillers, but their last few outings have been built around rather complicated ongoing story lines that eventually bogged things down. Not so this time. Plus, Corrie Swanson, the rebellious young girl who made Still Life With Crows such a breakthrough hit, returns to center stage. Thankfully, there’s only one four-page reference to the old ongoing story. So, if you aren’t a regular reader, just skip Chapter 22.

Actually, this book is an excellent first introduction to the enigmatic, eccentric, and most excellent Agent Pendergast. Of course, this being a thriller, there are plenty of tense moments and life-threatening scares. You may think you know what’s going to happen next. And, you may be wrong.

But the icing on the cake is the inclusion of a Sherlock Holmes angle. I won’t divulge more except to say that it is completely audacious and great fun.

A Little Plot:

Corrie wants to write a prize winning thesis for her criminal studies course and decides to study the bones of  Colorado miners killed by a grizzly bear in 1876. She heads to what is now a exceedingly posh resort town in hopes of studying how grizzly bear claws and teeth left their marks. However, that’s not what she finds.

Instead, Corrie lands in a lot of trouble. Pendergast comes to her aid, but a terrifying case of arson grabs his attention.

If you want to know more about Preston and Child, click here. They also have a regular newsletter and are on Facebook.

David and Goliath

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

By Malcolm Gladwell

The Short Take:

This highly readable nonfiction book is a delight in every way. The premise — that misfits and underdogs can, and do, triumph — is exciting and inspiring. Gladwell’s storytelling is completely engaging. Plus, you’ll have interesting factoids and tales to share at cocktail parties and dinners for weeks to come. What more could you possibly want?

Why?

Simply put, Gladwell writes a great book. He brings together a wide range of real-life examples to make his points. In this case, he demonstrates that obstacles and misfortune can hold the seeds of success. However, thinking you know how things should be done can lead to unfortunate outcomes.

This is no weighty academic tome. It’s the work of a gifted journalist who has exceptional skill. If you’re looking for more scientific rigor, delve into the sources included in his extensive notes. However, if you are looking for inspiration — for stories of people who bucked the establishment and/or overcame odds clearly stacked against them, this one is for you.

It might even change the way you think about your own life.

A Little Plot:

Basically Gladwell has gathered stories and studies that show (among many other things) classrooms can be too small, colleges can be too good, too much money can be as bad as not enough, power is worth little without legitimacy, and trickery can triumph.

It all builds around the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, which Gladwell points out was really an unfair fight — for Goliath. Perceived underdogs have much more  to do with observers’ expectations than with the reality of their situations.

For more about Gladwell and his work, click here. And, read this book. It’s small, breezy, and so very enlightening.

The Humanity Project

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

By Jean Thompson

The Short Take:

This book has more than a half dozen main characters, all of who are interesting in both their circumstances and their responses to those circumstances. I enjoyed them so much it was ultimately frustrating not to get to understand them better. But then, isn’t that the way things go with us humans?

Why?

There’s really not much more to say about this book. It attempts to explore the human condition by bringing in quite a diverse cast of characters; from a wealthy widow to a teen who witnessed a shooting in her school to a carpenter damaged in body and spirit, plus several others. There are various interactions and connections, but none of them are particularly satisfying.

At first, the book feels the same way — unsatisfying. Then you realize that is probably the point the author is trying to make. The human instinct to connect, yet our ultimate aloneness within ourselves, are at odds with each other and our happiness.

However, despite that, each of us has the power to influence, and even dramatically change, those around us — just like several characters do in this novel, sometimes with no intention of doing so.

A Little Plot:

After witnessing  a shooting that killed her stepsister, teenage Linnea becomes unmanageable and is sent to live with her unambitious father across the country. She meets a hard-striving young man who is trying to support his ailing dad, which means letting go of college dreams.

Then there’s the nurse, who is enlisted by a wealthy widow to start a foundation that will encourage people to be better, kinder to each other. Plus sundry others.

For more about Jean Thompson and her work, click here. By the way, it turns out “The Humanity Project” really exists. It has no connection with this book that I can tell, but sounds interesting, with a similar goal as the fictional foundation. If you want to know about that, click here.

 

Mrs. Poe

Friday, November 8th, 2013

By Lynn Cullen

The Short Take:

I felt like this historical novel was moving quite slowly, then realized I’d actually finished most of it. Obviously I was mesmerized. It’s a mood,y psychological-suspense-romance mash up that works surprisingly well. Of course, any book that features Edgar AllenPoe already has a special place on my bookshelves.

Why?

Anytime Poe is involved there will be controversy about his action,s his character, even his mental well-being. This book is set towards the latter part of his life — in 1945, New York City — when his poem, The Raven, is dazzling everyone.

However, Poe is not the central character. Instead, that is Frances Osgood, another actual historic woman who was a successful poet and author. Edgar’s young wife, Virginia, who is already suffering from tuberculosis, plays a major role as the title character.

Part of the fun in this book is the constant name dropping. Osgood and Mr. Poe regularly attend gatherings of New York’s creative stars: Mathew Brady, Walt Whitman, Horace Greeley, and Louis May Alcott (a NYC visitor) to name but a few.

However, at its core this is the love story of Poe and Osgood, something which most Poe experts insist was only a platonic flirtation carried on through published love poems but which Cullen takes several steps further.

The suspense aura come from the romantic triangle and its resulting interactions between the ailing but vindictive Mrs. Poe, the tortured genius E. A. Poe, and our heroine. Frances Osgood is struggling to find her own way through her writing. Now she has an irresistible attraction to Poe to deal with, as well.

There are also some interesting plot twists.

A Little Plot:

Frances Osgood’s artist husband is away, carrying on with some wealthy heiress, while she struggles to support her young family with her writing. Frances is already a fairly well-known poet when her star-crossed meeting with the Poe’s take place at a literary salon.

From the very first she feels a deep connection with him that he seems to reciprocate. However, with Mrs. Poe things are more complex — she seeks out Frances’ company yet also shows herself to be quite spiteful… and possibly much more.

For more about Lynn Cullen and her books, click here.

 

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Friday, October 18th, 2013

By Reza Aslan

The Short Take:

This is a fascinating exploration of the cultural, social, and political pressures impacting then-Palestine during the decades preceding, during, and after the life of Jesus. There’s been a lot of controversy because Aslan is Muslim, but I found little to disturb any but the most literal of New Testament readers — and a lot of intriguing insights.

Why?

I admit that the favorite sermons of my youth were when historical context was given to different Bible verses. Basically, that’s what Aslan’s book does with the New Testament and, to a lessor degree, the Old Testament as well.

This context enriches the New Testament experience. You can take from it what you will, bring your own interpretation to certain points, or reject some observations out of hand. That’s the reader’s — and the believer’s — prerogative. However, I found much that made me see things in a more informed light and brought new understanding of history, Judaism, and early Christianity.

Aslan’s book includes a ten-page bibliography and 53 pages of notes. It is deeply researched by a scholar who has spent his life studying religion ever since his days as a youthful Evangelical Christian.

A Little Plot:

Interestingly, while Jesus is the subject matter, it is all the forces that surround him, and his followers, that forms the majority of this book.

Pretty much everyone knows the story of Jesus to some extent. What we often do not understand is the degree to which Roman occupation infuriated the Jews and inspired rebellions and numerous would-be-saviors. It’s a fascinating story in itself. Well worth learning about.

Paris

Monday, September 9th, 2013

By Edward Rutherfurd

The Short Take:

Rutherfurd has departed somewhat from his typical James Michener style. This novel still traces fictional families in Paris from 1261 to 1968. However, the bulk of the book focuses on the period from 1875 through 1940. This provides a much more cohesive story line, but I was a bit disappointed not to have anything from Paris’ first millennial CE.

Why?

Rutherford certainly focused on an amazing time for France, with the building of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Impressionist artists, both World Wars, vast social changes, and more.  There’s also certainly a lot to be said for having multiple chapters about just three generations of the various key families instead of continually skipping several generations ahead. My disappointment is purely personal, as the father back in time my historical fiction goes the better I like it.

In addition to the fictional families,  genuine historical figures make their appearance, from Claude Monet to Gustave Eiffel to Charles de Gaulle, along with various French kings. The conflict between the aristocracy and everyone else, and the recurring attempts at revolution — successful and otherwise — were recurring themes. It appears that the tendency to march for change is something that runs deep in the Parisian spirit.

Rutherford’s exploration of the attempts over time to create a more equitable, worker-run government was exceptionally interesting, particularly regarding the influence of Russia’s own Communist government (which often had a totally different agenda).

It was a good read. I just wanted it to go way back to the Romans, too.

A Little Plot:

The book is built around generations of several families: the aristocratic de Cygne’s, the rich merchant Blanchard’s, the hard-working Gascon’s, the socialist Le Sourd’s, the Jewish Jacob’s, and the Protestant Renard’s.

The usual inter-relations take place, fortunes rise and fall — or just keep rising. And Paris stays Paris — the actual star of this novel.

For more about Edward Rutherfurd and his books, click here.

The King’s Deception

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

Berry is my favorite in the thriller genre, and this outing is still stronger than most books of that category but it felt a touch forced to me. The “McGuffin” driving the plot just seemed exceptionally weak. That said, it was diverting, entertaining, and fast-paced, and that’s pretty much why one reads thrillers.

Why?

I’ve read all Berry’s books. I’ve also read more than my share of books about the Tudors (Henry VII through Elizabeth I). Since this plot was wrapped around a mystery from Tudor times, it would seem to be the perfect marriage for me. However, maybe too much knowledge ruins the fun of Berry’s thrillers, which draw from the past to create modern conflicts. Or it could be that with his eighth Cotton Malone book, Berry is just losing a little steam with this character. It certainly wasn’t as good as his last novel, which abandoned Malone and his cohorts for another, more vulnerable, hero.

There were the usual twists, reveals, and double-dealings; maybe even a few too many. There was also a complex family issue that didn’t really add anything except internal angst for several of the characters.

If this was the first Berry thriller I had ever read, I’m not sure if I would read more. However, I know I’ll still read the next one.

A Little Plot:

Cotton Malone and his son are headed to Copenhagen, with a stop in London. Doing a favor for his former boss, Malone agrees to escort a teenage fugitive back to England. However, the team that picks them all up at the airport turns out to be anything but official (or are they?).

From there a complex plot weaves around a secret from the Tudor era, the planned release of a terrorist convicted of bombing Pan Am flight 103, a disgraced agent, a brazen CIA plot, and international power plays.

To visit Steve Berry’s website, click here.

The Universe Within

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

By Neil Shubin

The Short Take:

The subtitle alone tells you a lot: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. If you only read one book that addresses the whole of nature — from the beginnings of the universe to the causes behind changing weather patterns — this is the one to read. Shubin not only makes complex systems easy to understand and shows how everything is completely inter-related, he inspires a sense of wonder. And, he does all this in a mere 200 pages.

Why?

There’s something almost magical about this book, even though it is pure science. A large part of this is Shubin’s wonderful prose. He makes concepts like plate teutonics, organic chemistry, and planetary physics completely accessible to the non-scientist. Beyond that, he celebrates our connection with everything else in the universe. The very history of the cosmos is contained in our own bodies.

If you’ve ever picked up a popular book about science and promptly put it down again because it was just too complex (I never did get through Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), this is the one you’ve been waiting for. On the other hand, if you have a deep interest in one aspect of natural science — say geology or astronomy — Shubin will tie your special interest into the rest of creation. Either way, it’s a win for readers.

Best of all, this is not just an enlightening read, it is a joyful one.

A Little Plot:

Shubin starts with the building blocks of the universe — the elements that are found in stars as well as our own bodies. He explores rocks, planets, microscopic life, the formation of the continents, pretty much everything; and he brings it all right back to our own structure, bodily functions, and DNA. It’s a remarkable journey.

Granted, there’s not a lot of depth here, but what an enlightening and glorious experience! Hopefully, it will inspire at least some readers to seek more knowledge about our universe.

To visit Shubin’s website dedicated to his writings, click here. If you want to learn more about his academic pursuits, visit his University of Chicago page by clicking here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

This charming short novel is much gentler than Gaiman’s usual. It actually reminded me of Alice Hoffman’s work. It was pure magic — both literally and figuratively. It was also an interesting commentary on adults as children see them and as they see themselves.

Why?

If you shun magical tales, I guess you’ll miss this one. That’s too bad. It’s utterly entrancing and scattered throughout are observations about parents, children, and their relationships that will definitely give one pause.

As someone who spent much of my own childhood “hiding inside books” I could particularly relate to the first person narrator, a lonely young boy. Perhaps that made me like the book more. Regardless, I was enchanted by the writing style. It felt like it came from a seven-year-old’s mind, yet a seven-year-old with unusual insights. Perhaps that’s why Gaiman had his character observe that children don’t tell adults certain things because they would not be believed.

It’s a frightening tale, with a life-threatening presence disrupting the boy’s family and possibly taking his life. However, there are moments of great comfort, love, and protection as well.

This book is aimed at adults, though young adults and older children will certainly want to read it. Be aware that it could be quite frightening to some kids. Gaiman’s books can be disturbing. His Coraline was aimed at all audiences, but I suspect it inspired many, many nightmares.

A Little Plot:

The events of the book are remembered by the protagonist some 40 years after they  occur, as he sits by the duckpond that is the “ocean” of the title.

He remembers the 11-year-old girl, Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother who helped him overcome a great evil in his life — an evil that occurred because he let go of Lettie’s hand at the wrong time and place.

He, his family, his community, and even this whole world are ultimately at risk. But Lettie and her family are determined to protect him.

You can learn more about Gaiman and his work by clicking here. He has written a number of books for children. If I were you, I would read them first. And I mean that two ways.

Inferno

Monday, July 29th, 2013

By Dan Brown

The Short Take:

This time Brown’s Professor Langdon is following clues related to Dante’s Inferno to tack down a hidden virus that could doom millions of people. If you like Brown, or Dante for that matter, you’ll probably enjoy his newest thriller.

Why?

Brown is not my favorite thriller writer. His lengthy descriptions just get me bogged down. I will say, however, that he can certainly sell a city. Large portions of this novel take place in Florence and Venice, and the way he wrote about them just moved those places to the top of my “must see” list. However, while encouraging tourism is nice, it’s not necessarily ideal in a thriller.

Beyond that, this outing overdid the red herrings and plot twists. After each new reveal, instead of going”gosh, that was cool” it was more like “wait a minute, that doesn’t quite jive with what (insert character name) has been doing.”

That said, Brown kept me anxious about the final outcome, and that’s the main point of a thriller.

A Little Plot:

Langdon wakes up with a head wound and no memory of the last two days or how he came to Italy. Before he can get his bearings, people start shooting at him and a young female doctor steers him to safety — for a short time at least.

His only clue is a strange object sewn into his jacket’s lining.

By the way, this is the second book I’ve read this year that focused on the major problems of over-population (the other was an older book of Christopher Buckley’s, Boomsday). The books couldn’t be any more different, but the message behind them both gives me pause,