The Underground Railroad

February 11th, 2017

UnknownBy Colson Whitehead

The Short Take:

This book is fantastic. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of every publication that included it in their top ten list for 2016, or the judges who made it a National Book Award winner. It documents the all-to-real horrors of slavery in America, using the imaginative conceit of a slave runaway traveling on a literal railroad that runs under the ground.


This masterful novel follows the harrowing journey of Cora, a slave on the run from a Georgia cotton plantation. Chapters are named for the different states in which she finds herself, each of which showcases a different aspect of this country’s disregard for the humanity of its black citizens, from the brutality of slavery to purposely infecting individuals with syphilis.

While the subterranean trains themselves are fantasy, the reality of the situations Cora finds herself in is anything but. Whitehead takes genuine aspects of American racism– slavery, paternalism, white separatist movements, racial hysteria, etc. — and looks at them unflinchingly. Think of Gulliver’s Travels and you’ve got the basic idea.

It’s tough and Whitehead breaks your heart repeatedly, but Cora has such an indomitable spirit that you will her through each new disaster.

There are many phrases and observations that will stay with you, reminding you of the steep price some paid to provide homes and prosperity for others. “Stolen bodies working stolen lands,” said it most succinctly, but other passages — and Cora — tell it much more eloquently.

A Little Plot:

Another slave asks Cora to run away with him He says she will bring him luck as her mother was the only one to ever successfully escape, abandoning a young Cora. She agrees and they begin their journey to an underground railroad station. And, hopefully, to freedom. However, in addition to the usual deadly dangers, a notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway, is determined to find her.


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American Revolutions

February 7th, 2017

28757817By Alan Taylor

The Short Take:

This splendid history gives you the full picture surrounding the formation of the United States of America; and brings an eye-opening surprise on almost every page. Taylor, recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, backs up his massive work with nearly 200 pages of footnotes. Informative, comprehensive, and mind blowing, I’m recommending this one to everyone.


Forget pretty much everything you learned in history class. The years before, during, and after the American revolution were messy, nasty, mob-driven, and fractious. Consider this: a substantial majority people in the North American colonies were either against the revolution or neutral. Wealthy planters, land speculators, and merchants were behind the Patriot cause, using Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to persuade the common folk that a revolution was in their favor when it actually benefited the rich.

Patriot mobs would tar-and-feather loyalists then trash and burn their homes and businesses. They also destroyed virtually every loyalist printing press around, leaving only one published point of view. Native nations alternately aligned with France, Britain, or Spain but only as it suited their defense against the land-grabbing Americans. Slaves often turned to the English during these times, looking for freedom but seldom finding anything but death.

Taylor doesn’t merely focus on the people, politics and battles; he goes deep into the economic forces that shaped every player’s self-interests and motivations. He also shows how the empire-driven countries of that time — Spain, France, and England — used the Patriot cause as leverage against each other when not salivating over how either American loss or victory could ultimately benefit them. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is certainly a more comprehensive one. And, it’s far more realistic than the rosy view we tend to take today.

There’s a mountain of information in this book; so much I could only read a few pages at a time. It’s not a “can’t put it down” book on American history, but it is certainly the most enlightening.

A Little Plot:

North American colonies revolted against England and fought against each other. Despite themselves, native populations, slavery, France, Spain, and England, a republic was finally forged.

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January 29th, 2017

61mPe2WuzeL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_By Emily Ruskovich

The Short Take:

I could not put this book down but I can’t tell you why. The language was positively lyrical, however the story was unsatisfying. It wasn’t helped by having at least nine different points of view, time jumping, and massive amounts of internal conflict rather than external action.


If I considered myself a literary critic instead of a mere book lover, I might have had much stronger positive feelings about this writer’s debut novel. Unfortunately, I’m shallower than that.

The biggest problem was that I couldn’t accept the premise the storytelling centered upon (which I can’t reveal here without spoiling everything). In addition, the horrific events described in this novel (they all happen “off camera”) are all unresolved mysteries — you might learn who, but never understand why.

Guilt, remorse, escape, and the impossibility of redemption are all recurring themes, thoughtfully treated. There are moments of exceptional tenderness between characters. Knowledge — both for the reader and the characters — is revealed in an intriguing, compelling way. But for all that, it just didn’t satisfy.

A Little Plot:

Ann marries Wade and they live on a remote mountain. He experienced a tragedy that completely removed his wife and two daughters from his life; and he has removed every physical trace of them from his present. Ann is obsessed with learning more about them and what exactly happened yet doesn’t want to upset Wade with questions.

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The Lost City of the Monkey God

January 18th, 2017

61nGciqjbKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_By Douglas Preston

The Short Take:

Preston’s non-fiction account of the finding and first excavations of a “lost” major Pre-Columbian city in Honduras is gripping and enlightening beyond it’s archeological content. New uses for modern technology, the fallout from professional infighting, dangerous diseases and how climate change aids their spread are all part of this engrossing book.


Douglas Preston didn’t just write about this adventure — he lived it. He was in the air with the team using top-secret lidar technology to locate the cities that might be (probably are) the inspiration of countless legends. He was part of the first group of feet-on-the-ground explorers — helicoptered into a dense, untouched jungle rife with poisonous snakes and hungry insects.

His first-person involvement adds even more grit to a tale that already has plenty of drama. Since Preston is a best-selling thriller writer, he knows how to keep you turning those pages. He brings that expertise to his non-fiction writing as well (try The Monster of Florence, where simple book research turns him into a murder suspect!). It’s all true and well documented, but it’s written with adventure-novel energy and excitement.

A Little Plot:

For centuries there have been legends about a spectacular city hidden deep in the Honduran jungles. Many have tried — and even claimed — to find it. The latest man to make finding this city his goal , Steve Elkins, went to extraordinary lengths to achieve success –and Douglas Preston was with him all along the way.

Douglas Preston shares his website with his frequent fiction co-author, Lincoln Child; but you can also learn about this book and other solo efforts by clicking here.

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Kingdom of Speech

December 12th, 2016

unknown By Tom Wolfe

The Short Take:

Wolfe has fun, in this slim nonfiction book, looking at speech as a result of evolution and then debunking the idea. He’s no scientist, but I rather enjoyed his irreverent portrayals of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.


Let me make it clear: I do not buy Wolfe’s position that Homo sapiens is not a product of evolution. However, while he boldly makes that claim in this book, his true subject is whether language evolved. That is an interesting subject, indeed.

Darwin, Chomsky, and others have tried to determine just what language/speech is. These two — and many others — believed it was the result of evolution. Others think it is an artifact — something humans made, like stone tools.

Learning about Alfred Russel Wallace (the unsung co-creator of the theory of natural selection) and Daniel Everett (whose 30 years with an isolated Amazon tribe turned linguistic theories upside-down) was worth the 167-page read. Gaining insight into the world of linguistic studies was also interesting. But, Wolfe’s lack of knowledge (disinterest?) in the vast science supporting evolution was dismaying.

A Little Plot:

Wolfe starts his story with those men who first proposed a process of evolution (which included Darwin’s grandfather and even earlier proponents). He ends in the present day. In between he traces theories and studies about what language is/isn’t and how it came about.

PS. I couldn’t help but wonder if Wolfe has been hanging out with John Irving — he made that same obnoxious use of italics and exclamation points. Maybe he was making fun of his own position? I hope so.

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Heroes of the Frontier

November 16th, 2016

unknownBy Dave Eggers

The Short Take:

A wandering tale of a ruined professional woman and her two children as they range across Alaska in a decrepit RV. At turns funny and heart-breaking, this novel is not about the plot so much as it is about the heroine’s hopes, fears, shortcomings, and strengths.


There are several reasons to love this book:

Eggers observations on America (as voiced by Josie, the central character) are excellent and thought provoking — people’s constant disappointment, the rise of selfishness, even fancy groceries get their share of critique.

There’s also the artfully nuanced portrayal of Josie — one of the most thorough and honest representations I’ve encountered. Much of the book takes place in her head, and her reflections and concerns consistently have the stamp of reality, even when they seem a touch crazed.

It’s particularly interesting to have her thoughtful son and rambunctious daughter presented solely through her eyes; and see how her perceptions change as  their journey progresses.

However, the reader can be forgiven for wondering, “Where is this going?” In this book, as in Josie’s life, it’s not the destination, its the journey that matters.

A Little Plot:

Josie’s absent and unsupportive ex is getting married and wants their two kids to meet his fiancé. Instead she spirits them away to Alaska, where they rent an RV and strike out, despite fires raging in the area. She intends to visit a childhood friend but has no other real plans. Random encounters ensue, while Josie wonders if she is doing the right thing — now or ever.

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September 26th, 2016

Unknown-1By Annie Proulx

The Short Take:

This epic novel, built around the logging industry in North America, traces how these vast, virgin forests shaped the lives of the descendants of two French immigrants and a Mi’kmaw family. It’s informative, heart wrenching, and a cautionary tale for today. Best of all, it’s crafted by one superbly gifted writer.


I admit a fondness for books that trace generations of families. This one has a much stronger and more important message than most of them. It illustrates how the greed and wastefulness of the very few can cause suffering — sometimes quite intense — for all.

Our flawed relationship with nature is a recurring theme for Proulx. She showcased that perfectly in this novel by following the descendants of two French immigrants, both of whom are amazed by the endless forests on this continent. However, that awe leads them down two completely different paths.

The endless destruction of forests, rivers, and the way of life (not to mention their actual lives) of North America’s First Nations beats a steady drum throughout the book. It can wear you down, but maybe we need to have our eyes opened to what once was and how little of that we have left.

However, my only real complaint was about the last 100 or so pages. Up to that point Proulx gave her characters time to breathe and her readers time to engage in the story. For some reason in those last pages she elected to speed through generations at a breakneck pace. It’s hard to care much about a character who is barely mentioned before the plot moves on.

In other words, I wanted a much longer book.

A Little Plot:

Rene Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in what is now Canada. They are both barkskins — tree cutters — and must labor for another for three years in exchange for their own land. Duquet runs away and embarks on a life of greed and double-dealing, eventually clear-cutting whole forests. Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman. He continues to cut trees, but only to sustain his own family.

Their descendants follow in the paths set by these men — one side logging; the other side trying to balance Mi’kmaw ways while cutting trees for the white property owners.

Proulx is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, among other honors. You can find out a lot about her online, but not at a dedicated website.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

September 1st, 2016

UnknownBy J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.

The Short Take:

This play isn’t up to Rowling’s Potter novels by any means, but still holds some interest. It’s a bit disturbing to find familiar characters behaving in ways that seem wrong. Ultimately, the whole thing just didn’t jell. Still, sub par Harry is better than none.


Of course, this is the script for a play, so you’re missing out on the descriptions of places, emotions, and other important aspects except for the broadest strokes.  On stage, you would gain so much more from the performances, sets, and effects. Still, it had an outrageous number of scenes, most of which were exceptionally short, so the whole thing felt a bit choppy.

There were some interesting nuggets of information about the wizarding world of Harry Potter — new facts that fit into the original seven book saga. If you love Harry, it’s worth the short time investment to read this play. But, who else would be interested anyway, right? However, you might be better served by waiting till you can see the play, which could be quite awhile.

A Little Plot:

Harry and his teen son, Albus, aren’t getting along so well. Albus, who is in Slytherin (?), is best friends with Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco. Neither of them fit in, especially Albus who can not bear the burden of his father’s fame.

The whole thing is about problems between fathers and sons, including two other parent-child relationships I’m not going to get into.


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August 8th, 2016

UnknownBy Yaa Gyasi

The Short Take:

Gyasi gives us an excellent novel in the Roots tradition, but much more compelling as it follows two branches of the same family: one side participating in the slave trade in Africa, the other side its victims. Elegantly written, insightful — this book will change you.


This is Gyasi’s first novel and it’s a stellar debut. By following the descendants of two half sisters — one whose fate and family is tied to the slave traders, and one who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, Gyasi shows the dire consequences this horrendous practice had on all its participants.

She uses more than words to tell her story. Gyasi incorporates mystical elements, particularly dreams that come true or offer windows to the past. There are traditional songs that come to America with the slaves, but old meanings become lost, replaced, or reinterpreted  as generations pass. While parents try to teach children about their homeland and culture, those teachings, too, become warped and misunderstood. Most of all, Gyazi’s distinctive writing style graces every page. All her elements — beyond the compelling narrative — unite for an exceptional novel.

I harbor a special admiration for books that teach me new things and send me to the Internet to learn more. This book led to long list of things to research, from the Golden Stool of the Asante (Ashanti) to the hiring of convicts to work in the coal mines of Alabama.

Read Homegoing. It will enrich you in every way.

A Little Plot:

In the 18th century, two half-sisters (who are unaware of each other) have wildly different fates: one is married to an English slave trader and remains in her native land; the other is kidnapped, enslaved, and sold across the Atlantic. This novel follows their lives and those of their descendants.

While I could not quickly find a website for Gyasi, she does have a Facebook page and there is much about her online if you care to know more.

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Beyond the Ice Limit

July 30th, 2016

1447_m1t1w280q75v8897_BeyondTheIceLimit_-_FINAL_COVER1 By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

This is the sequel to a thriller the pair wrote in 2001. However you don’t need to read the original to either enjoy or fully understand this outing. Turns out what was once thought to be merely a massive and mysterious meteorite is much more dangerous — and alive. It’s two miles beneath the ocean’s surface in the treacherous south Atlantic, and it’s growing.


This is an entry in Preston and Child’s Gideon Crew Series, of which I am not a fan (though I greatly enjoy their Agent Pendergast books). However, this outing was an improvement, largely because the main female character was, thankfully, more than window dressing.

Preston and Child are thriller masters, but this book was solidly in the science fiction realm — weird alien life form, world-domination, that sort of thing. It was a fun read, but nothing awe-inspiring; a perfect choice for the beach, with plenty of thrills to keep you entertained.

The pair admits their fans continually pushed them to write this sequel. Making it a Gideon Crew novel probably killed two birds with one stone for them. However, the mash up doesn’t quite jell like one would like.

A Little Plot:

A handful of survivors from the catastrophe in the original thriller are intent on destroying the life form they once thought was a meteorite. To do that they need Gideon Crew’s nuclear weapons expertise. And, they have to do it fast before it dooms the whole planet.

For more about Preston and Child and their novels click here.

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