Archive for the ‘Older Worthy Reads’ Category

The Kraken Wakes

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

By John Wyndham

The Short Take:

This 1953 sci-fi is terrific and I’m glad Penguin Random House has re-issued it. Earth’s invaders aim for the ocean instead of the land–which makes sense since most of Earth is water. The plot covers about 10 years and incorporates financial, international trade, and political angles. What makes this particularly interesting is that climate change plays a central role in the fate of humanity.


Wyndham is considered to be one of Great Britain’s best sci-fi writers ( best known for Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos). This is the first one I’ve read but it won’t be the last. He is known for incorporating social commentary in his works, and what applied 70 years ago still applies now.

Published at the height of the Cold War, the reactions of the Soviets at every earthly change sound like a spoof and are highly amusing. Another interesting aspect is how public reaction to possible dangers ebbs and flows. People adjust and move on. One scientist who early on predicts what is happening is widely disparaged–unwisely as it turns out. And everyone has faith in the ultimate success of scientists and engineers, even after multiple failures on their part; that is a refreshing change from modern times.

A Little Plot:

Newlyweds Mike and Phyllis are honeymooning on a cruiser when they see five fuzzy red objects sink beneath the ocean surface. When they return to land–and their jobs as radio reporters–they discover others have seen similar phenomenon, with the red objects always sinking into oceans at their deepest parts. It’s a short term wonder and reason for fear, then people forget about it. Bad idea.

Nights at the Circus

Friday, February 26th, 2021

By Angela Carter

The Short Take:

This 1984 classic is incredible: a feminist fantasy, magical realism writ large, whip smart, deliciously naughty. It’s a full plate and night not be to your taste but I gobbled it up.


I’m so glad I stumbled across a reference to this complex and highly entertaining novel. Set right before the 1900s become the 20th century, it follows a winged (maybe) aerialist and her pursuing journalist from London to St. Petersburg to Siberia.

It’s filled with entertaining absurdities like waltzing tigers as well as acute observations on women’s rights–many of which are still applicable. It’s literally stuffed with points of interest, quotable lines, religious allusions, and truly fascinating characters. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction when it came out and 28 years later was voted the best book to ever win that award. that’s saying something since books have been winning that award since 1919.

It’s a rich, lively, thought provoking read. Try it.

A Little Plot:

Journalist Jack Falser suspects the supposedly winged trapeze artist Fevvers is a fraud, despite her being the toast of Europe. Now she is joining a circus bound for St. Petersburg and then Siberia and he decides he must follow her, not just for the story but for love.

The Prince, The Showgirl and Me

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

By Colin Clark

The Short Take:

Clark’s observations of his experiences on the set of the movie starring Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe are fascinating as well as bitingly funny. His diary entries cover six months in 1956 but he didn’t publish the work until 1996. It might be old but it still delights.


It’s always interesting to read unvarnished opinions about real events. What makes Clark’s diary particularly interesting is his ability to look at people and their behavior from different perspectives. His viewpoints are fluid, adapting to new information.

His eagerness to please, high ambition, and youth shape the content. However, it is his bright, gossipy writing style that makes this book so much fun to read. Clark knew how to dish, but not in a nasty way. His empathy is on clear display. He even writes at the end about where they all (the Brits) went wrong.

Of course, there’s a lot of information about the process of making a movie. While the technology has evolved dramatically that process is still largely the same. The behind-the-scenes look this diary provides will make you appreciate how hard an actor’s job is.

A Little Plot:

Olivier and Monroe are set to film The Prince and the Showgirl. Right before production begins she marries Arthur Miller, who comes along. She also brings a clingy drama coach and a reputation for being very difficult. Then she proceeds to live up to it.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

By Patricia Highsmith

The Short Take:

Over half a century old, this psychological thriller is unlike any other. Set largely in sun-drenched, languid Italy the frantic workings of Tom Ripley’s mind bring strife and death where least expected.


The plot of this book is very noir, however its setting, humor, and characters are anything but. Tom Ripley comes to Italy on a mission but soon his motivations change. A true sociopath, he carefully watches others, looking for any sign they might turn against him so he can act first.

He’s a young man in the company of two other young people: Marge, an aspiring poet, and the would-be artist Dickie, the object of Tom’s mission. Their days are awash in sun, martinis, boating trips, and pleasure. But Tom wants more — more of Dickie’s attention, more of Dickie’s lifestyle. So he begins to reinvent himself.

Highsmith keeps you on Tom’s side even as your horror at his actions grow. He’s a new kind of American dreamer–amoral, smart, ruthless. I could not imagine how this book would end. And the ending really surprised me. I’ll be reading more Highsmith in the future.

A Little Plot:

Tom is contacted by Dickie’s father, who is will to pay for Tom to go to Italy to convince his son to return to America. Tom readily agrees, but when he find his mission will not succeed, his plans change.

The Satanic Verses

Friday, September 13th, 2019

By Salman Rushdie

The Short Take:

WOW! What an epic journey this is. Rushdie’s most controversial novel is a masterpiece of wit wrapped around observations on the contradictions in life, alongside scrutiny of modern culture, colonialism, racism, Islam, and the nature (maybe) of good and evil.


This book is so rich and nuanced it defies easy description. Plus, I suspect some things whooshed by my limited comprehension. The action begins with a bang thousands of feet in the air, moves between India and England, and journeys through time into the world of faith. It is remarkable.

Rushdie earned a fatwa (rescinded in 1998) as well as literary accolades when this book came out. I wondered where the offense lay (or if I would even recognize it), but it’s right there in the title. Historically there is strong evidence Mohammed did make a pronouncement (satanic verses) allowing three female sub-gods, which he quickly retracted–saying it came from Satan instead of his usual spiritual contact, the archangel Gabriel. That first, mistaken pronouncement is now thoroughly denied.

Rushdie weaves that contradiction throughout this work, especially with his two main characters: Gabriel Farishta, a famous Indian actor who plays many characters drawn from the Hindu religion, becomes the personification of good. And, Saladin Chamcha, a thoroughly Anglicized voice-over actor who can’t get on-screen roles due his ethnic looks, turns into both a literal and figurative devil.

But that’s just part of the story. Gabreel’s dreams wind around the formation of a religion roughly like Islam as well as an ill-fated pilgrimage to Mecca led by a butterfly-clad woman. He also pursues with passion the icy Allelulia Crone. Saladin is arrested as an illegal immigrant, horribly abused, and finds his wife is heavily involved with another man before he turns into a giant, horned devil.

Sub plots and a host of intriguing characters enrich this novel even further. This is not one to rush through. It should be savored. Probably repeatedly.

A Little Plot:

Gabriel and Saladin are the only survivors of an airplane bomb, gripping each other as they fall thousands of feet into the English Channel–and live. Their subsequent lives take very different paths but their destinies remains intertwined.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Short Take:

I’ve been slowly working through Le Guin’s Hainish novels. I’ve enjoyed them all but this one wowed me. It won the Hugo and Nebulla awards (the former selected by fans, the latter by fellow sci fi writers) when it came out in 1969 but seems very relevant today.


With so much discussion (and some confusion) about gender identity today this book could open eyes and minds, even though it is not about the LGBTQ community. Le Guin has been quoted as saying she deliberately eliminated gender in this novel to see what was left.

The inhabitants of the planet Gethan are androgynous except for a short monthly period they refer to as kemmer. At that point they take on either male or female characteristics (which can change each time) to allow mating. The rest of the time they care nothing about sex.

An earthling Envoy, sent to invite Gethen into the 83 planet Ekumen coalition, has never encountered anything similar anywhere. On the other hand, the Gethans think someone in kemmer all the time is a pervert. Children are raised by whoever births them (which can change, too) so career and life opportunities are truly equal for all.

It takes a close friendship between on Gethan and the Envoy to frankly address their differences. Their discussions and growing understanding of each other are reason enough to read this book. The Envoy, in particular, realizes how having males and females has shaped many of his perceptions — perceptions he now rethinks.

There’s also vast richness in the book’s portrayal of vastly different communications styles, and the presentation of some thought-provoking religious ideas,

In addition it’s a great story, with political intrigues (and very different governments) in two countries, great danger for several characters, and a desperate and terrifying plan for escape.

A Little Plot:

Envoy Genly Ai is on Gethan alone, to invite its people to join an interplanetary organization His biggest champion is Estraven. Ai is anticipating a positive audience with the ruler of the country of Karhide when Estraven is denounced as a traitor and threatened with death. This could mean death for Ai as well.

A Clockwork Orange

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

By Anthony Burgess

The Short Take:

I initially chose to read this to see how it differed from the Stanley Kubrick movie, anticipating making only a short entry under What Else I’m Reading. As I got into it, I realized how powerful this book was and wanted to share more.


Two warnings: 1) Expect lots of graphic violence and sex. 2) Expect a lot of invented slang, much with Russian influence. However, due to #2, the impact of #1 is diminished somewhat. For the first 20 or so pages I often referred to the handy glossary of nadsat (teenage) language for interpretation but after a bit I could read normally as it’s mainly the same words.

This is fundamentally a story about good and evil and the importance of choice. It’s also about political manipulation, urban decay, and an accepted culture of violence. Set in a near-future (for 1963), dystopian England, the world of our youthful narrator, Alex, and his droogs (friends) is dreary at every level. Regular people stay behind locked doors at night, while teen gangs prowl and prey on anyone who catches their fancy.

Alex describes a couple of their days of ultra-violence and other activities before the plot really kicks in and the tables are turned. Then turned again. It’s strong stuff, but Alex’s musings on good and bad are provocative.

A Little Plot:

Alex happily considers himself the leader of his little band of violent thugs but when he oversteps, his droogs turn on him. Prison looks to be his future, but there is an alternative.

Anthony Burgess has long since left us but his story is interesting. If you want to know more click here.

This Good Earth

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

By Pearl S. Buck

The Short Take:

A cherished classic since its publication, Buck’s portrayal of rural life in early 19th century China is still highly readable and inspiring. Though the cycle of success and catastrophe occasionally feels predictable, isn’t that what life is? A series of ups and downs often driven by unfortunate behavior?


Buck’s book is credited with demythologizing Chinese culture, making it easier for Americas to accept them as allies during WWII. It certainly appeals to our domestic sensibilities: hard work pays off and hubris leads to disappointment. Beyond that, the characters are engaging, particularly Wang Lung, the poverty-stricken farmer who cares deeply for the land he tends.

The novel follows his life is followed from his wedding day to the day of his death, with incredible setbacks along the way. Yet Wang’s spirit and his love of his good earth never falter.  On the other hand, with our modern attitudes, his relationship with his wife, a former slave, takes some getting used to. He doesn’t really see her as a human being and is truly surprised when she occasionally behaves like one instead of a downtrodden servant.

A devious uncle, an opportunistic madam named Cuckoo, and other characters add lively notes to this novel, taking it well beyond a book about the weather-related trials of farming. It’s an easy and interesting read, opening a window on an earlier time as seen through the eyes of Buck, an American who lived and loved that land–just like Wang.

The Short Take:

Wang is exuberant about gaining a wife, a slave from the great house of a wealthy family. However, claiming her is a humiliating experience. Nevertheless, he is content because now he has someone to take care of all the household chores so he can focus on farming, and hopefully earn enough silver to buy more land to farm.

Things Fall Apart

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

By Chinua Achebe

The Short Take:

Now 60 years old, this book has lost none of its exceptional power. It’s the first in Achebe’s African Trilogy, and I will be reading the other two. The two interrelated stories of this novel center on Okonkwo, an Ibo leader who values strength above all else. No wonder this book is often a required read for school kids. However, I wonder if they have the life experience to fully understand what they are reading.


At barely 200 pages (in trade paper), this novel is a quick read but it is stuffed with important world themes: the relationship (or lack there of) between fathers and sons, the role of women in society, the rise and fall of power, the community versus the individual.

Of course the biggest theme of all is the impact of European colonialism on countries like Nigeria and how that destroyed native cultures. While most missionaries were well intentioned, the chaos they created has repercussions that are still felt more than a century later.

However, it’s the story, the characters, and the cultural details in Things Fall Apart that keep you turning the pages in eager anticipation (or dread). My bookclub doesn’t know it yet, but I’m picking this one when it’s my turn again.

A Little Plot:

Ibo is determined not to be like his lazy, ineffective father. He achieves the success he craves, but at a cost.

The second half of the book deals with the impact Christian missionaries have on Ibo, his family, and his community.

The late Chinua Achebe has no website but there is plenty of information about him and his work online.




American Gods

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

Almost 20 years ago Gaiman wrote this fascinating novel that is part American travelogue, part mythology mash up, part a commentary on modern life. It’s every bit as relevant today and every bit as fun to read.


To call Gaiman’s books fantasies is to sell them short. To say they are dark ignores the sly humor. To say they are exceptional reads is accurate to a fault — exceptional in every sense of the word.

The American gods of the title encompass both the old ones, brought to this country by various immigrant groups, from First Peoples onward, to the new gods: technology, media, cars, etc. (humanized, of course). There’s animosity between the two sides and caught in the middle is the ex-convict, Shadow. Shadow himself seems almost godlike. He fancies coin tricks and continually stumbles onto the right action to take or thing to say. However, why he’s involved is a mystery to himself and the reader.

It’s a suspenseful read, alternately thoughtful, humorous, and horrifying. What I particularly enjoyed was trying to guess who the various gods were as they appeared throughout the book. Many were totally unknown to me, which sent me to Google quite a bit. If you want a short-cut to that information, simply consult Wikipedia.

A Little Plot:

Shadow is abruptly released from prison when his wife dies. Headed home, he can’t shake a Mr. Wednesday who insists on employing him. It takes him awhile but Shadow realizes this man is a reduced version of Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. He accepts employment only to be warned rough times are coming. And they do.

For more about Neil Gaiman and his books, click here.


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