Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

August 21st, 2017

UnknownBy Matthew Sullivan

The Short Take:

This was a quick read, but also a bit of a head scratcher. It’s supposed to be a murder mystery yet the plot is almost completely driven by a suicide. Huh?

Why?

There’s a lot of misdirection in this mystery. The plot ambles along at a gentle pace, making you think something is going to happen over and over. But it doesn’t. It’s many pages before the actual murder is even mentioned, and then it turns out it’s 20 years in the past.

Relations past and present seem to be abandoned or begun for no real reason, there are some far-fetched coincidences, and it’s actually pretty easy to guess whodunit once the murder is actually presented.

I wasn’t unhappy while reading this book, but when I finished it  my reaction was, “What?” That’s not so great.

A Little Plot:

Lydia’s favorite customer commits suicide in the bookstore. She inherits his meager belongings and searches for clues to his action. She’s also avoiding her father and everyone else from her past, all due to a traumatic childhood incident and it’s aftermath.

For more about Matthew Sullivan click here.

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The House of the Spirits

August 9th, 2017

Unknown-1By Isabel Allende

The Short Take:

Magical realism meets with political oppression in this over 30-year-old novel — Allende’s first. I’ve long been a fan of hers, and this epic story following three generations of exceptional women — and one very powerful man — did not disappoint.

Why?

I did not know Allende was the niece of the Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende and that the political side of this novel was solidly founded on historical fact. Blame my scant knowledge of South American events for that, which researching for this review helped to remedy in some small fashion.

These political underpinnings start well in the novel’s background but eventually move to center stage as the book progresses. Above and beyond that, one amazing woman after another shapes and reshapes the lives of those around them, through powers both domestic and supernatural. It’s their stories that keep you engaged and keep you reading.

While most of the book is written in third person, the violent man who impacts all their lives, Esteban Trueba, speaks to you directly, though his actions sometimes give the lie to his words.

A hound as big as a horse, levitation, fantastical creche figures, fortune telling, and other peculiarities stride alongside growing political turmoil as the downtrodden begin to insist on their rights. Somehow Allende makes that combination seem realistic — it’s all fantastic.

A Little Plot:

Esteban labors at his a gold mine, desperate to earn the money to marry his adored Rosa. Her accidental death drives him to bury his sorrows with work on the decayed family farm. It also drives Rosa’s younger sister, Clara, to refuse to speak for nine years. Yet the future of these two will entwine.

For more about Allende, click here.

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The Changeling

August 4th, 2017

UnknownBy Victor Lavalle

The Short Take:

This disturbing tale brings together the worst nightmares of a modern, over-protective father and monstrous horrors from the Brothers Grimm. While that sounds hard to swallow, Lavelle makes it go down rather smoothly.

Why?

Lavalle’s hero, Apollo, and his wife, Emma, are very real New Yorker African-Americans. It’s important to remember this, because after their baby arrives, their lives go completely bonkers.

There is probably no other book remotely like this one. It’s rich, surprising, complex, shocking, and very well written. It is not particularly easy to like but it’s also almost impossible to put down. The story sucks you in, delivers the ride of a lifetime, then makes you question the whole experience.

While the importance — and limitation — of fatherhood is the primary focus, the way racism shapes and restricts the characters’ actions also snaps you to attention. There’s a lot going on here — from legal issues and media exploitation to the loyalty of friends and folk tales come to life.

Lavelle went bold with this one. Very, very bold.

A Little Plot:

Apollo dreams of his absent father and vows that when his own child is born he will protect his son at all costs. However, the anxieties and exhaustion of parenthood are taking their toll, driving the two apart. Problems — and secrets — increase the stress even more. Then, something unbelievably horrific happens.

For more about Victor Lavalle and his work, click here.

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Magpie Murders

July 23rd, 2017

225x225bbBy Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

Horowitz, who has written many a Masterpiece Mystery screenplay, both salutes the classic whodunit formula and turns it on its head. And, he does both masterfully.

Why?

Why is it the British seem to be particularly good at murder mysteries? Horowitz is no exception. His screen credits include Midsummer Murders, Foyle’s War, and much more. He’s written Sherlock Holmes stories and a young adult crime series, among other things, Then there’s this book.

Magpie Murders is basically two mysteries in one. There’s the new whodunit manuscript by the deceased writer of a popular series, and an even bigger mystery that surrounds the writer’s death. One woman is immersed in both and finds numerous curious, and highly disturbing, connections between the two.

Or is it all in her imagination? Read it and find out.

A Little Plot:

Susan Ryeland is the editor for Alan Conroy’s popular Atticus Pünd detective series. She settles down to read the first draft of his latest effort, but something is wrong.

I’m not telling you what exactly is wrong, because that would ruin all the fun. For more on Anthony Horowitz, click here.

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Theft by Finding

June 30th, 2017

UnknownBy David Sedaris

The Short Take:

As a Sedaris fan, I was initially disappointed with this collection of his diary entries but ultimately became delighted. His open eyes and listening ears find something interesting everywhere.

Why?

The early diary entries are rather short and depressing. I almost considered setting the book aside unfinished. However, the further into the timeline you read, the longer and more engaging the selected diary entries become.

This is no exercise in naval gazing. Sedaris doesn’t focus on his feelings but on everything around him. Oh, he may have a reaction to record (and share), but it’s the outside world that engages him.

You learn more about his family dynamics, including the tragic problems of one sister and his father’s gruffness. You also realize how much physical labor was a part of his life. But ultimate, it’s Seradis’ wide-eyed observance of the people and things around him that keep you turning the pages.

I was especially delighted that he included more about the spiders he named, fed, and watched over in his rural French home. Those notes alone give you an idea of the eccentric fun to be found in this volume.

A Little Plot:

The years in these diaries, 1977-2002, start with the years of struggle as a young man tries to find his way. The end with his exceptional success. However, not even the hard years are painful to read about because Sedaris continually records the confounding and bizarre people and events he encounters.

You can find a lot more about this David Sedaris book by clicking on the NPR interview here.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

June 22nd, 2017

Cover.A Gentleman in MoscowBy Amor Towles

The Short Take:

Who would think that a novel about house imprisonment in Communist Russia could provide such a delightful escape for readers today? But the luxurious Hotel Metropol is not your typical home, and the erudite Count Rostov is certainly no despairing inmate. He finds pleasure, purpose, and invaluable companionship in the course of this novel. And, so will you.

Why?

To call this a soufflé of a book would be untrue. Though light in spirit and tasty in its details, there is a continual tension between the hero’s esthetic and Bolshevik goals. The Metropol provides the perfect setting for these two to interact — supporting the aristocratic tastes of the former while bending to the demands of the latter.

Towles tips his hat to the great Russian writers, including a gun appearing in the first act, and an amusing discussion about confusing Russian names (unsurprisingly, many found in this book are also found in War and Peace).

A Little Plot:

Count Rostov is on trial for, basically, the crime of being a count. However, in his youth he wrote a well know poem in support of the revolution, so instead he is confined for life to the Metropol, where he has a fine suite of rooms. Of course, he must now live in cramped attic quarters. But the Count firmly believes if you do not master your circumstances you will be mastered by them. And, he proceeds to do just that. Like a gentleman.

For more about Towles and his book, click here.

 

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Rejected Princesses

June 7th, 2017

UnknownBy Jason Porath

The Short Take:

The subtitle tells it all: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. This oversized, all-ages illustrated book is stuffed with the stories of both real and legendary woman of outstanding achievement, audacity, and amazing bravery. Drawn from around the world and throughout the ages, these tales will be of particular delight to girls and women of all ages. Like me they’ll be saying, “Why haven’t I heard of that before!”

Why?

First of all, the title is largely misleading — these ladies were sometimes embraced and honored by their communities and followers; and very few of them were royalty of any sort. However, Porath’s point is to replace pampered pink princesses with stories of powerful women who needed no princes to rescue them. They took care of business themselves.

As some of the stories are beyond a “G” rating, Porath not only starts with the most G-rated stories but also includes color-coding for each story regarding issues like violence and adult situations, making it easy for parents who want to read these stories to their children. And, kids will like them as these action-packed, amazing stories include pirates, doctors, leaders of all sorts, warriors, athletes — 100 incredible women in all.

Porath came from the world of animation, so it’s no surprise there are full-page color illustrations alongside the tales. Whether you read it by yourself or aloud to others, you’re bound to next turn to the Internet to find out more about the exceptional women who populate these pages.

A Little Plot:

Well, there is no plot, just 100 stories about women who made history — or should have.

For more about Porath and this book, click here.

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Flood of Fire

June 2nd, 2017

Unknown-1By Amitav Ghosh

The Short Take:

As the third  book in Ghosh’s fascinating historical novels built around the East India Company’s opium trade, this book brings closure to many of the ongoing storylines involving the fictional characters (there are plenty of real ones, too). It’s an intriguing read, but not for anyone who is bamboozled by words in other languages — there’s lots of pidgin phrases and words, but you can almost always tell the meaning by context.

Why?

Most of us are vaguely aware of the Opium Wars between China and England. This book (and the others in the Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke) not only fully opens your eyes but drops your jaw. The audacity and power of the East India Company are simply mind-blowing. They argued they had a God-given right to sell opium to the Chinese and no Chinese Emperor had any business stopping them. And, the British government and military backed them up.

Ghosh’s story is presented through the adventures of a number of characters — Indian, British, even an American. There’s romance, scheming, endless greed, shocking revelations, and some highly intriguing minor characters, along with actual battles. Ghosh’s research is extensive and the most shocking statements by those insisting on the opium trade are drawn word-for-word from actual documents.

I readily admit this outing is not nearly as page-turning as his first book in the series, but it’s still a rewarding read.

A Little Plot:

There are several main plot lines involving an Indian sepoy in the East India Company’s army, the grieving widow of an Indian opium trader, and an ambitious American sailor. All three wind up sailing to China, involved, one way or another, in the outcome of the pending Opium Wars.

For more about Amitav Ghosh and his work, click here.

 

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

April 24th, 2017

sapiens_enBy Yuval Noah Harari

The Short Take:

Harari’s non-fiction book isn’t as much a history as an exploration of the human characteristic that enabled us to dominate the world — and it has little to do with opposable thumbs or big brains. While it’s sometimes a tedious read, the ideas he presents are truly eye-opening and worth exploring.

Why?

For countless millennia humanity consisted solely of small bands of hunter-gatherers. Then, in a very short period of time, we became the dominant force on planet earth. What changed? Humans developed the ability to believe in things that exist only in our imaginations — things like government, religion, and corporations.

That’s a pretty big concept to wrap your head around. Your first response is, naturally, “Of course they exist!” Harari thoughtfully lays out his case claiming otherwise. Then he demonstrates how each “advancement” in human society is the result of that ability.

It’s all fairly mind blowing.

A Little Plot:

Harari mainly uses the path of human history, from hunter-gatherer through the agricultural, industrial, scientific, and information revolutions, to support his claims. He’s pretty convincing.

For more about Harari and this book, click here.

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Norse Mythology

March 30th, 2017

Unknown-1By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

If you were ever interested in knowing more about Norse mythology but felt intimidated by famous yet dense translations like The Poetic Edda, this treat of a book is perfect for you. And, isn’t everyone into Vikings and Norse culture these days? Especially Thor?

Why?

Norse mythology is very different from that of the Greeks or Romans — there’s much more violence, meanness, gluttony, and general carousing. But best of all, it features one of the most entertaining gods ever — Loki. Loki is handsome, personable, witty, tricky, and a first-class troublemaker. He also features in most of the Norse stories Gaiman retells in this volume.

Gaiman’s goal was not to put a twist on the stories he loves very much, but to make them more accessible to modern readers. Much of ancient Norse culture has been lost, but what remains is exciting to explore. You’ll find interesting, even complex, characters, and a fair amount of humor (though often of the black variety). Keep in mind these gods and their exploits were affiliated with a harsh climate and that hostile environment influences the direction of these tales and the gods involved.

A Little Plot:

The books starts with the creation of the world. Then there are various Norse tales about the gods (the ones Gaiman includes feature Loki in particular). Finally, there’s the destruction of that world. Sort of.

For more about Neil Gaiman and his works (and I highly recommend reading some of Gaiman’s original work), click here.

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