Real Life

April 7th, 2020

By Brandon Taylor

The Short Take:

This book was an emotionally tough read. A young, gay Black man from the South studies biochem at a Midwest college. He maintains an emotional distance, even from his friends, whose casual racism occasionally jolts him. It’s a significant book but not for everyone.

Why?

This book is gut wrenching. You feel the universe of angst and wariness protagonist Wallace always carries, exposed through the events of a single weekend. Introspective by nature, and remote due to his unhappy childhood, he typically doesn’t spend much time with his lab mate friends. But this weekend he does and it creates a whole new level of self awareness.

He wonders aloud if seeking this masters degree is just a way of avoiding “real life.” That one out loud observation sets off a chain of interactions that raises more questions.

Taylor (who is also gay, Black and Southern) offers exquisite prose and detailed observations of the reactions humans display through minuscule expression changes. If you’re looking for plot, step away. If you want a deep, fascinating, character-driven book that leaves you aching–read on.

A Little Plot:

Wallace observes his friends gathered by the lake and decides not to join them when one sees and beckons him. He doesn’t tell them that weeks of work in the lab has been destroyed (sabotage?) but that event is reflected in all his actions over the weekend.

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Highfire

March 24th, 2020

By Eoin Colfer

The Short Take:

Outlandish and funny, this adventure featuring a resourceful teen boy, a 100% evil Constable, and a millennia-old dragon is one wild ride. But be warned, it is loaded with profanity.

Why?

Colfer is known for his Artemis Fowl series aimed at younger readers. These books put magical beings in the real world. This adult outing does the same, with the main difference in the swearing and immoral behavior (though I don’t recall Artemis Fowl being very well-behaved). It’s raucous, outrageous, and a lively read.

Highfire is plenty of fun but absolutely nothing more. However, in these times, a bit of fun is very welcome.

A Little Plot:

Vern, a lonely dragon, hides from humans in a Louisiana swamp. When he is spotted by a Squib (the teen protagonist) he intends to kill the kid. A corrupt cop is also out to get Squib, for nefarious reasons. But Squib is a survivor.

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Saint X

March 9th, 2020

By Alexis Schaitkin

The Short Take:

A beautiful college co-ed disappears on the luxurious island of Saint X (fictional). Sound familiar? That’s where the similarity ends. This is a deep dive into the psyche of her then seven-year-old sister as well as an exploration of the reasons behind that fateful night.

Why?

This is no mere murder mystery. It highlights the deep divide between classes, something obvious on most (all?) Caribbean islands. The well-to-do come to relax and indulge while full-time residents serve drinks and smiles for tips. It contrasts privilege and promise with poverty and resignation by telling the stories of two people.

Little sister Claire, who worshipped the much older Alison, is obsessed with her death, compulsively searching the internet for information about the people involved and on-line speculation. When she has a chance encounter with one of the accused she becomes his stalker. Her mental state and actions made this reader uncomfortable but, like a car wreck, it was hard to look away.

Clive, one of the two men last seen with Alison, finds his world in shambles after he is released as innocent. His voice, his story provides the counterpoint to Claire’s.

Tourists strive to gain some authenticity by seeking a local experience. Locals see opportunity in fulfilling those requests. Schaitkin’s compelling book shows how this interaction can lead to a single decision that destroys many lives.

The Short Take:

Golden girl Alison and little sister Claire are enjoying winter break at a lux resort. Alison attracts the attention of every man but she is more interested in a young men who serves drinks–and the frisson of possible danger she experiences.

For more about this book and it’s author, click here.

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The House of Brides

February 29th, 2020

By Jane Cockram

The Short Take:

A disappointing take on a gothic thriller. It had all the elements–from the remote manor house on the coast to the handsome but perplexing man. But the plot and writing were a mess.

Why?

This book was clearly influenced by Rebecca but Cockram is no Daphne Du Maurier. In fact the most entertaining thing about this debut novel was spotting the Rebecca references, like the name of the main male character (Max Summer), an affair that takes place in a boat house, even towering rhododendrons– that last a stretch since the setting is Christmas time in England.

The main character, Miranda, is supposed to be in her late 20s but exhibits all the maturity of a tween. People’s actions and interactions are so illogical as to be incomprehensible. And the big reveals have you saying, “Seriously?”

That’s too bad because a nice updating of one of the best classic gothic thrillers would have been a great read. Which made me wonder why the classic movie Rebecca hadn’t been remade. A quick google and I discover Netflix is doing just that. Now that’s something to look forward to.

A Little Plot:

Miranda’s career as an influencer has crashed spectacularly. A letter arrives addressed to her deceased mother which asks for help at Barnsley House. Her mother wrote a tell-all history about the women of this grand estate and Miranda has always wanted to know more. Her father tells her to stay away. She doesn’t.

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Followers

February 18th, 2020

By Megan Angelo

The Short Take:

What at first appears to be a fluff of a novel about social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram is actually provocative, thoughtful, somewhat frightening, and highly readable.

Why?

Angelo’s debut novel follows two storylines that eventually merge. One, set in 2016-17, centers on a woman who makes her friend a celebrity through social media strategies and posts. The other, set in 2051, focuses on a whole community where the lives of all residents are not only streamed but curated (think The Truman Show on steroids).

The juxtaposition of these two plot lines explores the evolution of interactive technology and how it ties into the devolution of genuine human interaction. However, this is no dystopian 1984. It addresses big issues with a light touch. It’s amusing as well as alarming, with characters that you find yourself liking even though they clearly believe the ends justify the means, no matter how unethical. They have story arcs that result in an emotional, and satisfying, ending.

Both the past and the future scenarios pose the question: Is one’s existence valid if it isn’t seen? It’s something the main characters struggle with.

The final third of the book brought a major plot twist that I found delightful but will not delve into here. Let’s just say it involved a “beautiful wall” but not where you’d think.

A Little Plot:

Instead of writing her novel, Orla posts silly click bait articles about celebrities for her social network employer. Then her roommate, Flo, enlists her aid to become famous for being famous.

With her every move (and those of everyone she knows) streamed live, Marlow moves through her life passively, thanks to the drug Hysteryl provided by her media sponsor. Then she learns a secret about her family and everything changes.

For more about Megan Angelo and her book click here.

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Such a Fun Age

February 3rd, 2020

By Kiley Reid

The Short Take:

This debut novel is fantastic. While it reads bright and breezy it also addresses the issue of subtle racial biases we might not acknowledge. It raises your consciousness but also does a masterful job of entertaining.

Why?

Every page of this book is a delight. The plot has the perfect level of intricacy and twists. The characters live vibrantly on the page with all their flaws and strengths. The dialogue sparkles. And what it has “to say” is done with eye-opening flair.

The book is largely written from the perspectives of the two main characters: Emira, a young black woman striving to transition into full adulthood after college and Alix, a some-what older white mother who’s created a career in confidence building.

Emira becomes a part-time babysitter for Alix’s three-year-old daughter (the wild observations that come out of this child’s mouth are reason enough to read this book). It’s this relationship that drives the main story, shaped not only by current needs and expectations but also a painful incident in Alix’s past.

Putting the inner thoughts and outward behaviors of these two back-to-back highlights how attitudes and expectations differ depending on status and experiences. That they each have a circle of supportive friends provides even more context to the story.

It’s simply a great read.

A Little Plot:

Emira reluctantly leaves a party to provide late-night babysitting when Alix has a family emergency. Alix requests she take her little girl to a fancy local grocery store for awhile (the kid digs grocery stores). However, store security challenges the validity of a black woman with a white child. This event leads to major changes in the relationship between the two.

For more about Kiley Reid and this book click here.

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Stolen Things

January 26th, 2020

By R. H. Herron

This book surprised me in a positive way. Though promoted as a thriller it read more like a police-driven murder mystery. I thought I had it all figured out half way through. So wrong. Which is good.

Why?

Like many mystery readers I’m accustomed to people outside the police department solving crimes: private investigators, nosy old ladies, and the like. In this case a police dispatcher and her police chief husband were at the heart of the plot. The author drew from her own experiences as a 911 dispatcher to add authenticity (I suppose) to her story.

While completely justified at some points, the continued histrionics of the characters got to me at times. Should a teen’s irritation with her mother draw a reaction equal to when she learns she’s been raped?

However, the plot moved so nimbly with the finger of guilt pointing to first one person then another, it was easy to over look this fault. Herron did a good job of revealing facts over time and leading you to suspect different individuals.

This one was a genuine page turner.

A Little Plot:

Laurie is at her job as a 911 police dispatcher when her next call turns out to be her daughter, Jojo, who has awakened in an unknown place. When the police find her (quickly done) they also find a sleeping pro football star, a dead body, and it’s clear Jojo has been drugged and assaulted.

For more about R. H. Herron and her books click here.

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Nothing to See Here

January 17th, 2020

By Kevin Wilson

The Short Take:

Don’t expect to read a book like this ever again. Wilson has produced a genuine original featuring children that catch on fire (rest assured: they don’t burn up). The growing attachment between these twins and their ambivalent caretaker will warm your heart (pun intended).

Why?

Take a protagonist with a dead end job, living with an uncaring mother (at age 28), and no prospects. Add 10-year-old twins who have an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames when emotions run high. This might not sound like the recipe for a charming, wonderful book but it was thoroughly delicious.

Lillian, the loser heroine, is disconnected yet quirky, with hysterical insights about everything from extreme wealth to parenting to the use of pitchers. The kids justifiably distrust everyone. They realize folks don’t want to be around people who can torch your home and you and act accordingly.

Somehow these three build a relationship based on honesty between caregiver and child, direct conversation, junk food, and basketball. And they are all deeply and permanently changed by their short summer together.

A Little Plot:

Lillian is contacted about a job by Madison, a rich, beautiful girl she briefly went to high school with. Madison is wife to a U.S. Senator aspiring to higher office, and now has his two fiery kids from a former marriage coming to live with them since the death of their mother. They need to be kept cool (literally) and out of sight and. Lillian has no qualifications but she takes the job. Hot times ensue.

For more about Kevin Wilson and his books, click here.

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The Starless Sea

December 15th, 2019

By Erin Morgenstern

The Short Take:

This mesmerizing tale skillfully weaves various plot lines in a fairy tale of a novel rich in evocative imagery. Morgenstern proved her mastery of imaginative description in The Night Circus. In this outing the complexity of the plot also shines.

Why?

Fair warning: I’m a sucker for books with secret/magical libraries and this one offered up a lulu. It also had a more consistently cohesive plot than her first novel, which went a bit wonky in the final third.

Part mystery story, part love story, part hero’s quest–there’s a lot going on in this book. And its many threads tangle in surprising ways.

Morgenstern also includes interesting musings on the nature of story telling, video games, books, and how they could be enhanced (the protagonist is an avid reader getting his masters in gaming). I found these discussions and insights exciting in their possibilities.

But ultimately, it is the visions Morgenstern crafts, both enchanting and frightening, that give this book its incredible appeal. And the magical library, of course.

A Little Plot:

As a child Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across an intriguing door that wasn’t there the day before but he does not enter. When he finds a book that exactly describes this experience he begins searching for clues. This mysterious book also includes other tales which–like his experience–need to continue. Adventures ensue that encompass everything.

For more about Erin Morgenstern and her work click here. I was particularly interested in her list of favorite books. We hold a lot in common.

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Ninth House

November 28th, 2019

By Leigh Bardugo

The Short Take:

To say this book centers on magic undersells it. It’s smart, brutal, surprising; part murder mystery, part fish-out-of-water, part hero’s journey. The heroine is perfect: strong in some ways, highly vulnerable in others. I couldn’t put it down.

Why?

Ninth House is no Harry Potter. The magic acts encountered in its pages are raw, bloody, erratic, and used to keep the rich and powerful rich and powerful.

Set in present day Yale University (which Bardugo attended), the famed secret societies (Skull & Bones, Manuscript, Scroll & Key, etc.) all have secret magical practices–a different one for each of the eight ancient houses. One can create unbreakable contracts, another reads the future of the stock market through a living human’s entrails, yet another can create portals to distant places.

A completely unprepared Alex Stern drops into this world, charged with keeping the houses’ rituals and errors secret, and cleaning up their messes. A high-school drop-out and small-time drug dealer/user, she receives the offer of a free Yale education after surviving a horrendous multiple homicide. Though she is unaware of why this fresh start is hers, it’s because she can see ghosts. Ghosts are a problem for Yale and its societies.

She receives some help but the problems grow, become intertwined, and create a knot of tremendous suspicion and fear that she must overcome or die trying.

A Little Plot:

Alex comes to Yale with little more than the clothes on her back and an incomplete, substandard education. She hopes to gain an education that will open doors while handling the tasks of protecting the secret societies.

It’s not an easy combination. And then it really gets tough.

For more about Bardugo and her work, click here.

PS. Though this is supposedly a stand-alone book (and the main story does resolve), Bardugo leaves the doormen for a sequel.

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