Ten Caesars

March 26th, 2019

By Barry Strauss

The Short Take:

Strauss provides a concise look at the rise, rule, and fall of ten of Rome’s most important emperors. Since he devotes roughly 30 pages to each, it’s little more than a thumbnail sketch which might be perfect, or not.

Why?

I did learn a fair amount from this book, and also learned some of what I thought I knew was incorrect (I’m talking about you, Robert Graves’ of I, Claudius.). But ultimately I was disappointed by the shortness of the entries. I wanted more.

Strauss certainly makes his subjects approachable. His language is casual and contemporary, not at all what I’m used to in a history. It’s not often you find a pop cultural reference in serious books, but there was Game of Thrones cited to describe a battle between several would-be-Caesars.

The emperors covered include Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan. Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine. Some were little more than names to me before reading this–especially Trajan and Hadrian, whose names are attached to ruins/structures I’ve seen. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, I was ashamed that I had never even heard of his Meditations, which (Strauss claims) is the second most read book in the world after the New Testament. Of course, it’s now on my ever-growing “must read” list.

I did appreciate that he made a strong effort to include the women who propelled, advised, and influenced his emperors. Reading about the mothers, wives and other women around these powerful men helped to shape your understanding of them.

However, the greatest enlightenment for me came from how he portrayed the Roman people. I understand their philosophies, values, and other attributes far better than before. That was the best thing of all.

A Little Plot:

It starts with Augustus and ends with Constantine. However, Strauss also provides some connecting information to help with the gaps that occur between certain Caesars. That helps one’s understanding of how and why different ones came to power.

For more about Barry Strauss and his books, click here.

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The Malta Exchange

March 19th, 2019

By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

I enjoy thrillers and Steve Berry has been a long time favorite, but not this time. The “twist” was obvious from early on in this story of intrigue involving the Knights of Malta and the election of a new pope.

Why?

Berry started his series featuring former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone with a terrific thriller built around the Knights Templar. For his 14th book in the series he returned to one of those religious/martial groups: The Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta (depending on the century). I had high hopes due to the subject matter, but this series has gone stale.

This seems to be a recurring problem for thriller writers. It’s not that Berry isn’t finding new historical “secrets” or theories to exploit in his books, but the increasing weight of the main characters relationships and backstories simply drags things down. I had high hopes Berry was going to start a new series with The Columbus Affair, which starred an interesting investigative journalist, but that turned out to be a single outing.

Sadly, this book was so disappointing it will probably be the last one of his I read.

A Little Plot:

A cardinal with popish ambitions is given information that could make his dreams come true. However, American and British operatives are paying close attention and are suspicious of his actions.

For more about Steve Berry and his books, click here.

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This Good Earth

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?

Why?

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.

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Lethal White

February 20th, 2019

By Robert Galbraith

The Short Take:

Yet another enjoyable entry in the Comoran Strike detective series, with so many worthy suspects you’ll keep changing your mind about whodunit. Overlapping plots and schemes add a welcome complexity to the traditional detective genre. The continuing saga of the relationship (or lack thereof) between Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott is a nice touch as well.

Why?

J. K. Rowling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, continues this highly readable detective series with style and panache. She portrays Cormoran Strike as a burly, scowling, aloof man in near constant pain due to the pressures of his prosthetic leg. Yet his underlying humanity comes through loud and clear, endearing him to readers as well as various ladies in the series. Robin Ellacott is an equally interesting character, with natural detecting instincts but a lack of experience that sometimes gets her into trouble.

By setting this mystery in the middle of London’s hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics, Rowling/Galbraith also gets to involve radical left and anarchist characters as a contrast to the government ministers planning the big event while also scheming against each other. It’s a big cast and you can almost imagine the multiple lengths of red yarn connecting them all on a complicated investigation board. There’s a lot to keep straight but this mystery is worth the effort.

A Little Plot:

Billy, an obviously mentally disturbed young man, bursts into Strike’s office insisting that as a child he saw a murder. Almost immediately Strike is asked to stop both a blackmailer and a rival politician from attacking Jasper Chiswell, the Minister of Culture and a Member of Parliament. In a coincidence worthy of Dickens, these two cases have a connection.

For more about Robert Galbraith and her/his books, click here.

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Verses for the Dead

January 31st, 2019

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Preston and Child are back on track, returning to bizarre murder cases that require the unique mind and methods of FBI Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast. It’s their best book in quite a while, as strange and twisty as you could want.

Why?

For some time now Preston and Child’s excellent Pendergast character has been mired in affairs related to his convoluted–and often dangerous–family relationships. This time there was only the barest allusion to a difference in his relationship with his ward in the first chapter then it’s off to Miami and a grisly murder.

The authors have also given a partner to the perpetual loner, with directions from on high that they must work together, not separately. The Pendergast mysteries always benefit from the addition of an outside point of view. Native American Coldmoon, as the junior partner on this case, does an excellent job providing this. I’m hoping that this partnership will extend beyond one book. At least that door was left open.

The mystery itself is appropriately gory and bizarre, exactly what you expect in a Pendergast case. And, as usual, the agents are working against the clock, trying to limit the number of bodies a serial murderer leaves in his wake.

It’s back to classic Pendergast. And that’s exactly what I’ve been missing.

A Little Plot:

Pendergast’s boss is tired of the way this agent breaks the rules, even if he does always solve the crime. So he saddles Pendergast with a partner before sending him off to Miami. There a woman was brutally murdered, her heart removed and then placed with a note on the grave of a woman who committed suicide years ago. Then it happens again.

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

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Killing Commendatore

January 23rd, 2019

By Haruki Murakami

The Short Take:

The meandering plot of this novel included many intriguing threads. Unfortunately they never really wove together. That’s not to say the journey wasn’t interesting, but ultimately it did disappoint this reader.

Why?

It’s quite possible I’m simply not intellectual enough to appreciate this work by the highly respected Murakami.  I’ve enjoyed other books by him but this one not so much. It had plenty of elements to engage you, from the finding a hidden artistic masterpiece to a bell that rings in the night… from underground. Mystical elements, characters with hidden motives, creative gridlock and renewal–these are but a few of the components Murakami includes. However, he also spends a great deal of time describing people’s clothes, the menus for solitary meals, and other mundane details. Of course, this heightens the contrast to surreal occurrences in the novel but it also bogs down the storytelling.

But I was still enjoying the read. Until the end.

There was so much rich material, including the physical manifestation of “Idea,” a portrait that reveals a person’s inner self, the disappearance and reappearance of items, and a journey reminiscent of the hero’s quest, as well as previously mentioned points. However, when I reached the end (which I won’t divulge) I was deeply disappointed. Where I was anticipating something that brought together the mysteries and other-worldly parts of the plot it never happened. In fact the resolution to the major crisis of the book was so ordinary it had me saying, “Really?”

Murakami set me up, but then he let me down.

By the way, this novel is supposedly an “epic homage to The Great Gatsby.” While that book was referenced I did not see much relationship. Again, that’s probably my lack.

A Little Plot:

The wife of an unnamed first-person narrator tells him she is seeing another and wants a divorce. After a wandering and lengthy road trip, he is given the opportunity to live in the former home of a famed Japanese artist. Here he hopes to reinvent his own artistic style. But many things intervene.

For more about Haruki Murakami click here.

 

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Once Upon a River

January 13th, 2019

By Diane Setterfield

The Short Take:

This absolutely charming book reads like a fairy tale, contains more than one mystery, and is populated by an entertaining cast of unique characters, not least of which is the Thames River. As in Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, what seems magical might not be. That uncertainty is a big part of the attraction. The richly lush prose is another. Read it and enjoy.

Why?

Setterfield’s newest novel flows like the grand river that inspires it: it starts as a trickle of storytelling, creating the atmosphere of a fairy tale. It then floods you with incredible events that impact the lives and emotions of many characters in different and permanent ways. And Setterfield’s powerful writing keeps the story from tumbling into pure fantasy, bringing in the scientific mind of Rita, the local nurse, and the objective eye of the photographer Henry Daunt to counter the wild speculations, blind acceptances, and mercenary schemes of others.

It’s a delicate balance, but Setterfield has proven herself in this arena before and she treads this path with masterful assurance. While you would not necessarily call this a mystery, puzzling situations, people and actions are found at every turn. Along with every reveal comes another uncertainty. The result is a novel that pulls you through with all the irresistibility of a strong river current.

A Little Plot:

At the Swan Inn, where storytelling is a frequent diversion, a dreadfully injured man carrying an apparently dead child bursts in. The child seems to come back to life and three families claim she is someone different: Amelia, Ann, and Alice. Cutting through illusions to get to answers is not easy. And, the more you learn, the more complicated it becomes.

For more about the wonderful book and Dianne Setterfield, click here.

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Fire and Blood

December 26th, 2018

By George R. R. Martin

The Short Take:

If you’re a big fan of either the Game of Thrones televisionseries or the  A Song of Ice and Fire books, you’ll want to read this one. It’s a prequel, written like a history drawn from several sources, one of which is the writings of a bawdy Fool who adds levity and lewdness to the stories of more learned men.

Why?

If you are unfamiliar or not interested in the programs/books mentioned above, stop reading now. You will have absolutely no interest in this volume or the one that is supposed to follow it (more about that later). However, if you can’t enough of the imaginary world of Westeros, this one is for you.

Starting some 300 years before the opening of Game of Thrones, this volume focuses on the first 135 or so years of Targaryen rule of Westeros, including its conquest. There are dragons aplenty, great love, exceptional evil, plots, betrayals, and battles. It all moves along at a nice clip, though occasionally the list of lords involved in some activity–be it attending a coronation or dying in battle–gets a mite tedious.

The biggest treat is that you gain insights to certain things in the books Martin has already written. For example, ever wonder where Daenerys’ dragon eggs  came from? Especially since she’s around more than 100 years after the last dragon lived? Read this and you’ll have a good idea.

When I purchased this book I did feel like I was rewarding Martin for bad behavior. His fans have waited over seven years for the next book in his Westeros series and we are waiting still. Now that the HBO series has passed his written plot point, it looks like Martin has lost interest in completing his series. To that I say, “Boo!” However, I’ll take what I can get, which means I devoured this book like a dragon consuming a freshly charred bull. But he hd better not keep me waiting seven years for the second half of this history.

A Little Plot:

Aegon and his two wives decide to take over Westeros, using both their extensive armies and three fearsome dragons. The dragons do most of the work, burning whole cities that don’t surrender. After that, keeping the lords of Westeros in line is a handful for several succeeding kings in the Targaryen line. But that’s not nearly as much trouble as Targaryen family members fighting each other–with dragons–for the crown.

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Lake Success

November 26th, 2018

By Gary Shteyngart

The Short Take:

Barry, a ridiculously rich hedge fund manager, loses it and strikes out on a cross-country bus trip. However this is no journey of self discovery due to other people and experiences. It’s all about Barry all the time. There’s a lot to be interested in within this satiric novel but it’s not a comfortable read.

Why?

When you measure your actual value by your financial net worth you’re deluding yourself, and Barry is one of the most self-deluded characters to ever inhabit a novel. He lives in a fantasy world only partly made possible by unimaginable wealth. Both his daydreams and interactions with other people are also completely narcissistic and off-kilter. The man doesn’t have a clue but imagines he knows the solution, only to decide that solution is something else entirely when he hits the next bus stop.

Barry’s wife, Seema, has a modicum of self-awareness with a degree of loathing for her husband’s business and how hedge funds have ruined the lives of many Americans. Her focus centers on their young son, recently diagnosed with severe autism, but she also struggles with her own identity.

The 2016 election frames both Barry’s bus trip and Seema’s life in Manhattan. Candidate Trump’s crudities and narcism are paralleled by the novel’s two main characters but also reflected in encounters across the country.

Ultimately this is a book about white male privilege and its inherent advantages, right through to the unsatisfying ending reflects. There are a few pages at the very end that brighten the outlook (for Barry at least), but the rest of the book reflects today’s America too much for comfort. It’s a satire that stings.

While The Great Gatsby is referenced often, Bonfire of the Vanities is the more appropriate comparison. And Tom Wolfe did a better job.

A Little Plot:

After a disastrous dinner party Barry tries to force his silent, autistic son to speak. When his wife and nanny intervene he grabs some of his favorite watches (there’s a lot about watches in this book) and heads for the Greyhound station intending to find his college sweetheart. To evade his efficient chief-of-staff he dumps his created cards and cell phone. And, off he goes.

For more about the author and this book click here.

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She Would Be King

November 13th, 2018

By Wayetu Moore

The Short Take:

This exceptional debut novel crafts a creation mythology for the country of Liberia that puts Rome’s Romulus and Remus in the shade. Some might call it magical realism, but it’s far more than that.

Why?

This intense book follows four characters who suffer great loss and pain — either as slaves or as a victim of harsh superstition in a West African village. Yet these four all also each have a supernatural power — a power that relates directly to their suffering.

The focus is Liberia, once called Monrovia, a settlement on Africa’s west coast founded by abolitionists and others for slaves and free blacks. Moore’s reimagined origin story for this country not only reveals the flaws in the original settler’s idealism, it also showcases the exceptional strengths needed for an independent African nation to survive in the late 19th century: hidden power, continual rebirth, extreme resilience.

Moore’s tale portrays the coming together of resettled African Americans and the area’s indigenous tribes in a way that was sadly lacking in actual history. If only her version were true. It’s certainly an exceptional read.

A Little Plot:

Gbessa, born on a cursed day, is spurned by her tribe and marked for death. June Dey, born of a spirit, is a slave of suspicious origin. Jamaican Maroon Norman, born of a white researcher and black slave, finds himself the subject of prejudiced research. All need each other, as well as their spirit mother, to bring Liberia into it’s ideal existence.

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