Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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.


Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

By Lisa Halliday

The Short Take:

This novel is amazing! It consists of two very different sections that seem to have nothing in common until a third section brings them together in all their asymmetry. It’s an outstanding first novel. Heck, it would make an outstanding 10th novel.


From the very first paragraphs you know you’ve found something special. The main character, Alice, is sitting outside, avoiding reading her book with “long paragraphs and no quotation marks.” While not the same words they form a fun-house mirror image of Lewis Carroll’s opening for his Alice. This 20-something Alice indeed goes down the rabbit hole, starting an affair with a 70-something famous and acclaimed writer — a mirror image of Philip Roth.

Part romance, part training for the budding young writer, this section, Folly, glitters with humor, engaging dialogue, and observations on love, life, and the arts. It practically dances forward, brightly skimming the surface of emotions and relationships.

The second section, Madness, couldn’t be more different. It centers on a thoughtful, mild-mannered Iraqi-American, Amar. While detained at Heathrow Airport he reviews his life and his inner self. Here the dialogue is serious, situations are dangerous, but hope endures. Reflections on religion, his family’s history, and news reporting are all a part of his emotional inner journey while he goes nowhere at the airport.

The two sections seem to have nothing but the faintest of connections — until you arrive at the final part of the book. Then you want to immediately go back and start reading all over again, because your second reading will be even richer and more rewarding than the first.

A Little Plot:

This has been largely covered above: A May-December affair between Alice, a young would-be writer, and a very successful and famous one. This is followed by the travails and deep thoughts of Amar, an Iraqi-American with passports for both countries who has come up against endless bureaucracy at Heathrow Airport and uses that time to review his life through his memories.

It’s all about asymmetry — in ages, in circumstances, in everything.

City of Endless Night

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Halleluia! This Agent Pendergast mystery/thriller gets back to basics: bizarre murders, misleading theories, and Special Agent Pendergast using his formidable mind and unbreakable cool to save the day.


I’ve read all the Preston/Child Pendergast novels but was ready to throw in the towel if there was another bogus melodramatic volume. In fact, I was dreadfully anticipating the return of Pendergast’s already-twice-dead evil brother.

Whew! This is a legitimate crime spree story. In fact, there are only minimal references to the ongoing Pendergast saga. The only complaint I have is that Pendergast is a minor character for most of the book, ducking in and out of the action until the rousing final chapters.

Recurring characters Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta and reporter Bryce Harriman carry most of the plot. Not to worry, though — again there is no need to have read any previous books. The actual murders are spectacular mysteries. They would seem impossible to carry off, except they happen. It’s all pretty cool.

A Little Plot:

The headless corpse of a young woman is found in an abandoned warehouse. Turns out she’s the playgirl daughter of a tech billionaire. That’s just the beginning of the headless bodies. It’s up to D’Agosta and Pendergast to determine not just who the murderers are, but how many of them there might be, and what possible connection their could be.

For more about Preston & Child and their many books, click here.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

By Philip Pullman

The Short Take:

This prequel to Pullman’s highly acclaimed (and controversial) His Dark Materials trilogy does not disappoint. He sets the background for his dust story — a strange material that may prove consciousness is matter — causing stress for the church, which now dominates the state. However, it is the rousing adventure of a young boy determined to rescue an infant girl that forms the heart and soul of the narrative.


Be aware, this is the first book in a new trilogy. However, Pullman isn’t going to pull a George Martin or Patrick Rothfuss — making us wait five or more years for the next installment. The second book is already written. In addition he claims that, while the first book is prequel, some of this trilogy’s content will be sequel. If you haven’t read his earlier trilogy, reward yourself by doing so while you await publication.

The heroine of his previous trilogy, Lyra, is a mere baby in this volume who only does the usual baby things. Twelve-year-old Malcolm Polstead is the story’s tentpole — an extraordinarily strong, courageous, and resourceful character you immediately fall in love with.

While some characters from His Dark Materials return, many others are new. Also returning are the cruel tactics of the controlling Magisterium, the earthly knowledge of the Gyptians, and the relationship between individuals and their daemons (animals that reflect a person’s spirit in some way). It was particularly fun and revealing to read how the infant Lyra and her daemon interacted.

Though positioned as a young adult novel, Pullman’s writing is richly satisfying for all ages. And, his imaginative alternative universe is second to none.

A Little Plot:

Malcolm Polstead is immediately enchanted by the baby Lyra, mysteriously placed in the protective care of a nearby priory of nuns. He feels driven to protect her, which makes him an alert observer/spy. The dangers besetting the infant aren’t only human, floods are sweeping the lands.

For more about Philip Pullman and his works click here.


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