Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

A Wild Swan

Monday, March 7th, 2016

51LtkoH7aKL._SL75_By Michael Cunningham

The Short Take:

Cunningham reimagines beloved fairytales, exploring what happens beyond the “happy ever after,” or what came before, or why things occurred in the first place. He reveals the morals, motives, and misadventures other tellings leave out.

Why?

This Pulitzer Prize winning writer teases new meaning out of old tales, probing their psychology, giving them new resonance, wrapping them in contemporary attitudes. Each one is completely unique, except for the writing, which is consistently delicious.

The sources include the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, the results are sometimes even scarier — but for different reasons entirely.

Plus, the wonderful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu make this book even more delightful.

My only complaint is that I wanted more. Otherwise, I was throughly enchanted.

A Little Plot:

That doesn’t really apply here. But you will find retellings of stories like Rapunzel, Jack and the BeanstalkThe Steadfast Tin Soldier, and others. One that really got to me was a new look at Beauty and the Beast. Why had I never thought of the story that way before? (shivers)

For more about the author, click here.

 

 

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Friday, February 12th, 2016

51AZox6paLL._SL75_By Sarah Vowell

The Short Take:

Vowell doesn’t just write insightful history books, she draws shining lines from incidents in the past to present circumstances. Her histories are filled with wry humor as well as fascinating detail. This take on the Marquis de Lafayette and his participation in the American Revolutionary War has all that and more.

Why?

This book is not remotely like the history lessons of your school days. Vowell is sassy and unsentimental as well as thorough. And, she doesn’t just do the research (this 268 page book had a four page bibliography, small type, two columns per page), she visits the locations. Past and present come together in delightful stories, like her meeting with Quakers who definitely did not approve of her planned book about war and war heroes.

She points out the inconsistencies between America’s purported values and it’s realities, past and present. She takes historical side paths to shine a light on topics like the most contentious presidential election in American history, way back in 1824 (ergo the “somewhat” in this book’s title).

In Sarah Vowell’s hands, history becomes more interesting and entertaining than any novel.

A Little Plot:

Lafayette was a rich, teenage, French aristocrat determined to fight in America’s war for independence. He got to do just that, becoming close to George Washington and leading men in important battles. When he revisited America decades later, he was feted and celebrated more than any superstar.

Impressive.

A quick google didn’t reveal an author website, but there’s plenty of information about Vowell and her writings online.

 

Career of Evil

Monday, February 1st, 2016

51hy+GbenKL._SL75_By Robert Galbraith

The Short Take:

Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowling) third outing with private investigator Cormorant Strike is the best yet. A grizzly delivery to his office sends Strike after three men from his past, all with reason to hate him. It’s a terrific mystery.

Why?

While other book detectives feature exceptional abilities, Cormorant Strike struggles through exceptional difficulties. Galbraith wisely created a character with an incredibly rich and troubled past, then mines it sparingly to slowly revealing more of what makes Strike tick with each book.

Then there’s the delightful assistant, bright Robin Elliott, who is torn between her love of detecting and constantly battling her fiancé’s unfounded jealousy and constant irritation over her demanding, underpaid job.

That’s two highly original and likable characters to start with. Add to that Galbraith’s wonderfully twisted plot, with danger lurking on every page, and you have one great read.

While you would do yourself a disservice not to read The Cuckoo’s Calling first (after all, she wrote it first), this book is even better. Okay, I admit, all three are enjoyable; but this one was really special. Galbraith/Rowling claims she’s never had more fun writing a novel. It shows.

A Little Plot:

A woman’s severed leg is delivered to Robin at the office. When Strike considers possible suspects, he gives the police four names from his past. They chose to focus on a known gangster. Strike feels the other three more likely due to the nature of the package, an enclosed note, and past relationships.

Accordingly, he and Robin mount their own investigation into the dark and dangerous lives of these three men. Meanwhile, someone is stalking Robin, meticulously planning her death. Is it one of Strike’s suspects? The gangster? Or someone else?

For more about Galbraith and the Strike novels, click here.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

51XP0oGfpdL._SL75_By Louis de Bernieres

The Short Take:

This rich and absorbing novel thoughtfully captured how World War I changed England completely. Close childhood friends from three neighboring upper-class families meet different fates, but all are irrevocably altered.

Why?

There is no dearth of novels structured around one of the great wars, tracing family calamities and triumphs. What sets this one apart is not only the excellent writing and an exceptional feel for the period, but the fact that it focuses less on parent-child relationships and more on friendships formed in childhood and their deep bonds.

If you have read the author’s Corelli’s Mandolin (and you should) you know the emotion and depth he brings to his writing. While the characters here are far different, the emotion is in full force as people struggle to find hope and purpose when surrounded by loss.

By the way, do not read the inside front flap of this book: like so many of those summaries, it gives away far too much of the story. Unlike what I offer below.

A Little Plot:

The children of three neighboring and prosperous families enjoy an idyllic childhood as “the pals” during the Edwardian era. Then WWI intervenes. The boys go to battle and the girls not only worry but find ways to help. No one is unscarred.

For more about the author, you can visit his website by clicking here. I apologize for leaving out the grave mark on the second “e” in his last name. After multiple attempts, I simply gave up.

Purity

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

51P5bUSPVFL._SL75_By Jonathan Franzen

The Short Take:

There’s no doubt Franzen is an exceptional novelist. His latest book is an excellent example of his elevated craft. With connections and coincidences worthy of Charles Dickens, his characters move from various American locations to Germany to South American. Complex without being complicated, it explores loyalties and the many facets of what purity means.

Why?

This is yet another novel that jumps around in time, place, and character. However this time those jumps work perfectly to fully reveal the main characters: their flaws, their strengths, their growth, their pursuit of a personal ideal of purity.

Franzen gives his characters plenty of space to evolve. Sometimes they can be as frustrating to the reader as real people are, with all their inconsistencies and irrational desires. There’s exceptional darkness as well as delightful humor. It’s our world, with all its hypocrisy and heroism.

Ultimately there’s something very satisfying about how Franzen reveals the interconnectedness of his characters. While you are still left with questions, you feel his novel has fulfilled its purpose.

A Little Plot:

The title character, who prefers to go by Pip, is a young woman struggling to pay a $130,ooo student loan as well as find her footing in life. Her greatest wish is to know who her father is, something her eccentric mother refuses to reveal.

Her search takes her to a remote South American enclave devoted to revealing the world’s secrets and to an internship for an on-line journalism venture. She forms intense relationships, not all of which are what she supposes them to be.

And, Pip is just one of the main characters who sweep you through their worlds and pains.

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t appear to have a dedicated website, but there’s plenty of information about him and his books on line.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Monday, November 30th, 2015

5175zN2T7EL._SL75_By George R. R. Martin 

The Short Take:

Underwhelming set of three stories from an author whose series, A Song of Ice and Fire, I greatly enjoy(ed). Set in Westeros a century early, they relate exploits of a hedge knight and his squire.

Why?

The three stories present episodes in the life of a hedge knight of lowly origin. Each story builds on the one before it, but there is no conclusion or general story arc.

The episodes are heavily larded with the names and heraldry of various minor characters. Even for this major fan (who devoured the first five books in his series and is anxiously awaiting the next), it was entirely too much unwanted detail.

In addition, the focus is on fighting and jousting. If that appeals to you, you might enjoy this book. At least it is a quick read, with the light content fattened up by 160 illustrations.

A Little Plot:

Dunn, a particularly penniless hedge knight, seeks his fortune. Instead he acquires a squire, Egg, who is not at all what he seems to be.

If you care to visit the author’s website, click here.

For a very comprehensive fan site for A Song of Fire and Ice, click here.

 

Fates and Furies

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

61X4KnqQS4L._SL75_By Lauren Goff

The Short Take:

This intense novel explores a marriage from the differing perspectives of the husband and his wife. It is powerful, surprising, and beautifully structured. The first half is a mite slow, but the second half more than makes up for it.

Why?

Love is often built on perceptions and expectations. This beautifully written and carefully crafted story illustrates how love can prevail and stay true even when those perceptions and expectations are largely false.

The title — with the Fates for him and Furies for her — is just part of the nod to Greek mythology and plays. But don’t feel you have to be well versed in those subjects to fully enjoy this book.

The first half, written from husband Lotto’s perspective, moves at a slow, more deliberate pace while it creates a portrait of this perfect marriage, despite various challenges. The second half both strengthens that portrait and tears it to shreds as you learn what truly is in the mind of Mathilde, the wife.

I found myself going “Wow!” more than once in the second half, as thoughts and actions were revealed that totally changed your perspective. However, this is no “Gone Girl” type story. It’s much richer, more nuanced, and more human. These are two characters you can respect and relate to, in both their goodness and their foibles.

A Little Plot:

It’s love at first sight and a union of totally honesty for Lotto and Mathilde. He sees her as beauty personified and is terrified she will leave him at some time. She seems to glide through life unperturbed.

Or so it seems.

The Marriage Game

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

51zm5lXV7fL._SL75_By Alison Weir

The Short Take:

This novel about the loves of Queen Elizabeth I, written by a respected historian, didn’t fit my image of that formidable leader. Weir certainly knows her subject, but I preferred this woman as described in Weir’s biography, The Life of Elizabeth I.

Why?

Well, as the name implies, this is sort of a romance. That’s not a genre I particularly care for, so maybe that’s my problem. I’ve read a couple of Weir’s other novels — one about the young Elizabeth (The Lady Elizabeth) and another about Lady Jane Grey (Innocent Traitor) — and enjoyed them very much, especially the latter.

Focusing on Elizabeth’s long romance with Lord Robert Dudley, alongside marriage negotiations with various European princes, was just too narrow a picture to suit me. Her rule was complicated, successful, and long. It probably wouldn’t have been any of those if she had married.

I read this book concurrent with Weir’s Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and was gobsmacked by the unique difficulties these female rulers faced. Everyone wanted them to get married (to produce heirs and because “a mere woman needed the advice of a man”). However, any choice would lead to disaster. Whether Catholic or Protestant, foreign or home-grown, as soon as a likely mate was identified the opposing factions went into overtime trying to stop the proposed marriage.

Elizabeth I used this situation to her advantage, stringing along multiple royal suitors in order to keep her country safe and prosperous. Mary Queen of Scotts didn’t fare so well.

Weir’s novel certainly showcases Elizabeth’s fears regarding any marital alliance, but I missed not having the rest of her story.

A Little Plot:

Elizabeth I and Lord Robert Dudley knew each other since their youth. Their mutual passion is strong, but marriage to Dudley could be a disaster for her for a number of reasons, starting with the number of traitors found in his family tree.

For more about Alison Weir, her novels, and her non-fiction writing, cluck here.

The Insect Farm

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

51VJ-j56PDL._SL75_By Stuart Prebble

The Short Take:

Ultimately, this psychological drama disappointed. It started strong but caring about either of the main characters was difficult, and became even harder as the plot progressed.

Why?

This wasn’t a bad book. In fact, I believe it would make an excellent movie. It just didn’t live up to the expectations it created in the early chapters.

The narrator and his mentally challenged brother are both obsessives: the former laser-focused on the woman he loves, the latter devoted to his managerie of insects. These characters are decidedly creepy, however I’m not sure Prebble intends for you to feel that way about them — at least not from the very beginning.

The novel’s prologue is actually an epilogue of sufficient freakiness to get you immediately involved. The writing is appropriately atmospheric. The plot twists and turns, and certainly keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next; or rather, what exactly was going on in that so-called prologue. You wanted to learn all the answers. That’s what drives you to the last page. Then you go, “Hmm…”

A Little Plot:

(Skipping the prologue completely.) Jonathan is devoted to his older brother, Roger, who has mental issues. Roger, in turn is fiercely protective of Jonathan.

Jonathan falls madly in love with Harriet, who reciprocates his affections. However, Jonathan’s jealousy is boundless despite her reassurances. When the two of them head off to college together, Roger finds his own obsession — a growing collection of insect colonies.

Then tragedy strikes.

For more about Stuart Prebble, and an entirely different take on this novel, click here.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

Friday, August 7th, 2015

51nmSDX+fBL._SL75_By Anna North

The Short Take:

A mesmerizing portrait of a troubled young filmmaker, as seen by people who loved her. This novel captures the pain a creative genius can experience trying to achieve her vision as well as the pain she inflicts on those who surround her.

Why?

It’s been a long time since I found a book this compelling. Part of the attraction was because I always felt right on the edge of understanding the title character, but continually fell short. North has created a demanding, confusing, driven, conflicted, talented heroine that never gets a chance to speak for herself. Instead her story is told by her devoted brother, her girlfriend, and several others who found their lives changed by spending time with her.

There is no real difference in their views — Sophie Stark is consistently frustrating and largely unknowable even to those who love her. However, the glimpses you do get of the heart and soul of this challenging artist make you want to protect her from the inevitable.

There was a time-jump in the first half of the book — a tiresome practice that seems to be everywhere these days. It allowed the author to start off with a riveting and shocking story. Maybe that’s what is needed to get the reader involved these days. However, I found Sophie Stark’s enigmatic character and mysterious behavior to be engrossing, even from her childhood days.

A Little Plot:

Sophie Stark hears a woman tell  a “scary camping story” as part of a bar series. She wants to make a movie based on the story. This leads to a meteoric rise and damaged relationships.

The author doesn’t seem to have a public website, but for more about this book, click here.

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