New Literary Gems Under 200 Pages

thumbnail_IMG_4482    A quick read is usually a mystery thriller I cannot put down, but I recently found a few books not in that genre but just as intense, and under two hundred pages.  I wished they had gone on for more.  They are so small and compact, I thought of saving them for my next long flight, but like chocolate, I couldn’t resist.

Have you read anything short and sweet lately?

My Twenty-Five Years in Provence by Peter Mayle

imagesAt only 179 pages, Mayle’s book was long enough to remind me of one of favorite vacations in Provence a few years ago.  I still have some thyme weighed out for me at the farmer’s market, but I am running out – time to go back for more. Mayle’s travel musings have his usual rambling flair in this posthumous “reflections of then and now.”  A joy to read and reread, this 25-year retrospective includes the amazing croissants and wines in cozy cafes (you can almost taste them), and the wonder of the beautiful landscape in the Luberon region.  He includes some bumps along the way to tranquility, but I agree with Mayle’s philosophy; ““Memory is at its best when it’s selective, when we have edited out the dull, the disappointing and the disagreeable until we are left with rose-colored perfection.”

Harbor Me by Jacquelyn Woodson

Honored with many awards, including the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson’s new book for middle school age children – Harbor Me – has a message for adults in its 176 pages.

When the teacher assigns four boys and two girls to meet every Friday in the old art room they rename the ARTT (A Room To Talk room), with no adults to listen in, they share their problems and discover together they have the strength to face them. The issues are timely: Esteban’s father’s deportation after being taken from work at a local factory to Haley’s father’s incarceration and her struggle with her own bi-racial identity, and Amari’s fears of racial profiling. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they hide from the rest of the world and find a safe harbor.

His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Kate Walbert’s 149 pages in His Favorites build into the #MeToo story of a vulnerable fifteen year old girl at a prestigious private boarding school.  The story starts with the death of a teenage girl from a drunken joyride in a golf cart.  As the driver,  Jo’s guilt drives her to acquiesce to her thirty-four year old Advanced Lit class teacher’s sexual advances, until she finally decides to go to the headmaster for help. The administrator’s reaction is predictable. Walbert clearly points to all the adults who have abandoned Jo, including her parents, as she navigates a painful journey that never ends:

“From here there is never … a day without Master’s shadow across my life — a solid bar, a locked turnstile that brings me up short, trapped on the other side of where I thought I was going, the place I once imagined I would be.”

A story with a short but powerful and painful  statement…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

UnknownDorthe Nors 192 pages had me remembering when I learned to drive; I was sixteen and taught by my patient father, but Nors’ heroine, Sonja,  is over forty trying to learn how to drive a stick shift in a driving school with an impatient young instructor.  Written as a stream of consciousness dialogue with herself, the story allows the reader into Sonja’s anxiety-driven “monkey mind” as she jumps into tangent topics, often daydreaming while she is having a driving lesson.

Nors’ book is translated from Danish with obscure references to the landscape; coincidentally, Sonja is a translator of gory Swedish crime novels. It took awhile to get into the rhythm of the story, maybe because of the translation, but when Sonya drops out in the middle of a hike with a group of women to find a bakery with “thick slices of cake,” I suddenly liked her.

The book may be short but it is packed with dark humor and introspective notes, and double entendre on living life alone, as Sonja watches out for her blind spots:

“I’m a woman past forty.  Alone… Barefoot and besides, I can’t shift gears.”

lightning-bolt-clipart-lightning-bolt-hiMore Short Books to Look For:

  • Coming later in September – Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini 

In 48 pages in a letter from father to son. the author of The Kite Runner commemorates the second anniversary of the death of the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy who drowned while attempting to reach Greece.

  • In January, 2019 – Ghost Wall by Kate Moss – 144 pages

“…A gothic tale of bullying and bog people…”

Summer Romance

Summer is officially over, but the summer heat lingers.  Have you read anything steamy lately?

Here is my hot pick for historical romance:

bellewether-9781501116544_lg   Bellewether

Fans of Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander will relish Susanna Kearsley’s Bellewether, complete with romance, historical references, and a time-traveling ghost.

As Charley, the new curator of the Wilde House museum on Long Island, explores the history of the old house, her search parallels the world of the original 1750s family.  Kearsely alternates chapters in the voices of the men and women of the past with Charley and their modern day contemporaries.  The developing romance between Charley and Sam, the handsome contractor who is helping repair and restore the old house, mirrors the eighteenth century relationship of Lydia, twenty year old daughter of the house and Jean-Philippe, the French Canadian lieutenant staying in their house.

The story is slow-moving, bur offers glimpses into the lives of men and women living through one of the most comprehensive wars of the century.  Known as the French and Indian War in the American colonies, the Seven Years War ended with The Treaty of Paris transferring Canada from France to England, switching loyalties forever.  Kearsley also chronicle’s The Acadian Expulsion and its effect on families.

Prisoners during the French and Indian War were sometimes left in the homes of area farmers loyal to the British king under a gentleman’s agreement to do no harm and not try to escape.  Although he speaks no English, Jean Philippe volunteers to help Lydia’s father around the farm.  In the museum house’s legend, Lydia’s brother, Joseph, killed Jean Philippe to stop him from marrying Lydia.  In modern times, Charley is being helped by a mysterious ghost, possibly one of the colonial lovers, as she uncovers clues to the past.  In the end, the true history is revealed, conveniently creating a happily ever after ending for all.

More Historical Romances:

51qskWl-U4L._SY346_ Reading now on my iPhone: The Lost Vintage by Anne Mah

“A woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy to study for her Master of Wine test, uncovers a lost diary, a forgotten relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II.

51Idch895UL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  Listening to: The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall

“A dual-timeline narrative featuring a 1949 Miss Subways contestant and a modern-day advertising executive whose careers and lives intersect.”

9781524742959_p0_v2_s192x300-1  On the Wait List at the library: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

“The glamorous lost art school within Grand Central Terminal, where two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.”

French Exit – A Civilized Way to Say Ghosting

9780062846921   French Exit by Patrick deWitt

A French exit means leaving without saying goodbye, disappearing suddenly; we might call it ghosting.  Have you ever done it?  Shame on you if you have, but we all probably have at least been tempted.  Patrick deWitt, known for his pointed satire of human foibles as the author of The Sisters Brothers and The Undermajordomo Minor, creates another off-beat examination of our modern life and times in his novel, French Exit.  With a combination of Oscar Wilde irony, Noel Coward wit, and Wes Anderson macabre, French Exit is both funny and morbid.

Frances Price gained her reputation when she finds her wealthy philandering husband’s dead body, leaves him in bed telling noone, and goes off for a weekend ski vacation. It’s twenty years later and sixty-five year old Frances has shopped her way through all the money. Forced to leave her posh New York City surroundings and sell all her possessions, she cruises off to Paris with her son Malcolm and her cat, Small Frank, who seems to be the reincarnation of her dead husband, to live in her friend’s small vacant apartment, while she decides how to deal with her penniless situation.

Frances’s 32-year-old son Malcolm’s long-suffering fiancée, Susan, affectionately describes him as a “lugubrious toddler of a man” and a “pile of American garbage” when he breaks off their long-standing engagement before sailing away.  Malcolm drinks, steals trinkets from his hosts at parties, and generally enjoys the rich boy’s life of doing nothing.  The news that he and Frances are not only broke but moving to Paris doesn’t seem to change his attitude.

The novel continues its second half in Paris, adding more absurd characters.  The characters are terrible people and the situation they find themselves in is indefensible. But the dialogue in this comedy of manners lifts the tale with its wit, as it skewers the worst of high society – especially the prevalence of appearance over substance – a timely observation for today’s society.

Not much happens as a plot in the story, but the characters and deWitt’s sharp dialogue and wordplay will compel you to keep reading to find out how they will manage in the end.  What will become of Frances and Malcolm?  Will Frank finally get what he deserves? The ending is pretty depressing as DeWitt subliminally delivers a social commentary on finding, or losing, one’s purpose in life.

If you enjoyed deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, you will be satisfied with the absurdity and distraction of French Exit, and perhaps gasp as you laugh.

Related Review:   The Undermajordomo Minor

SNAP

71wtI34-tjL   A pregnant mother walks up a British highway to phone for help, leaving her three children in the broken down car; when the children follow her trail later they find a phone receiver dangling from the hook but their mother has disappeared.  With this opening Belinda Bauer’s SNAP slowly unravels into a compelling murder mystery with a thrilling twist.

As the eldest, eleven year old Jack is in charge of his two younger sisters; their father is too devastated to cope. When their father does not return one day from his run to the market to get milk, Jack turns to burglary to sustain the household and keep his younger siblings from being discovered and sent to foster homes.  Five year old Merry mows the front lawn to keep up appearances, while Joy hoards newspapers, clipping articles about her murdered mother.

Their lives are brave but pathetic. Known as the Goldilocks burglar because he naps in the rooms of children, Jack looks for books on vampires he can steal for Joy to read.  He delivers his stolen goods to the neighborhood fence, Louis, another unlikely criminal who proudly pushes his baby son around in a stroller.  With Louis’ connections, Jack can target only empty homes where the owners have gone on extended vacations, but one day he  enters a house where he finds not only a pregnant woman in her bed but also the knife he somehow knows killed his mother.

Bauer cleverly weaves her characters together, introducing each in a different context unlikely to arouse the reader’s suspicion, until they overlap.  Her red herrings become real clues to the murderer’s identity and motive, as Jack and police detectives Marvel and Reynolds make missteps as they close in on the suspect.  The subplots overlap and unravel quickly into a compelling tale filled with survival, manipulation, violence, and murder.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, SNAP has an unconventional but satisfying ending, and  Jack is now one of my favorite fictional characters. With so many possibilities for discussion,  I considered SNAP as a candidate for book club lists, but after some thought, I decided I would rather keep my own images of Jack, Marvel, and the Whiles in my head, without dissecting them.  Read it and let me know what you think..

The Shakespeare Requirement

41JZtiym7LL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   If you’ve never been a part of an English Department, you might think Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement is overly exaggerated, but from personal experience, let me tell you, it’s uncomfortably close to reality.  Although Schumacher had me laughing out loud at some of the shenanigans, it’s funnier when reading about it, when not inside the academic ninth circle of Dante’s hell. Schumacher gives treachery a new twist with a PhD.

Jay Fitger, first introduced in Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, is back as the reluctant new Chair of the English Department at Payne University.  He has been missing most communications because he refuses to connect to the campus-wide computer calendar system which schedules meetings, posts notices, and generally communicates anything important.  He cannot understand why people can’t just write notes and make phone calls.  Relegated to the dilapidated basement of Willard Hall with no heat in winter and wasps in summer, Fitger must convince his colleagues to approve the department’s vision statement before he will be given a budget.

The Shakespeare requirement for all English majors is doomed to be one of the many cuts from the curriculum, to make way for more user friendly fare (“The American Soap and the Telenova”);  however, the senior tenured professor of forty years and the department’s Shakespearean scholar, Dennis Cassovan, has taken a stand.  Since the vote for the vision statement must be unanimous, and never has the English Department ever agreed on anything (“Unanimity in English – it was akin to a rainbow over a field of unicorns),” the vision statement is stalled. Meanwhile, the chair of Economics, Roland Gladwell, a business type who curries corporate donors, and is not concerned whether students can read or write, is conspiring to reduce the English department to shreds.

Roland makes deals with rich benefactors, luring them with their names on buildings and tries to further dissect the English department faculty vote with bribes.  As he continues his behind the scenes treachery, his success seems insured.  If only someone could stop him.  Sadly, noble Jay Fitger is too busy being a good guy – advising a bright pregnant freshman, nursing an English faculty member who has noone to help after his surgery, trying to appease his colleagues as he continually rewrites the department vision statement.  If this were not a novel, poor Jay would be out of his job while Roland would be basking in a new office with a promotion.

But this is fiction, and the good guys can win.   With a twist of fate and a garble of names, self-serving Roland finally makes a mistake, publicly and irrevocably.   You may see it coming – at least I was hoping for it – but Schumacher deftly creates a funny scenario not only satisfying but laughable, producing one of the funniest lines in the novel.

The Shakespeare Requirement is not for everyone, but if you have ever wondered what really goes on in the halls of academia, or if you have ever been there yourself, you should read this satire.  It’s bright, funny, intelligent, righteous, and it can be cathartic.

Related Review:  Dear Committee Members