Friday, February 12, 2016

Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon

Reviewed by Ambrea

Matthew Corbett, following Magistrate Woodward as he duly devoted clerk, arrives in Carolina's Fount Royal under the unenviable task of investigating reports of witchcraft.  Rachel Howarth has been accused of murder, witchcraft, along with a list of sundry crimes and misdemeanors, and she is all but sentenced for her perceived crimes.  However, a greater evil lurks in Fount Royal—one that will test Matthew’s resolve to seek truth and endanger the very foundation of his faith.

For the most part, I really enjoyed Speaks the Nightbird.  It’s incredibly precise and beautifully detailed, depicting Fount Royal and Matthew’s subsequent exploration of the town with such grace and detail as to make it feel real.  I simply loved the realism and history that Robert McCammon afforded his novel:  it gives Speaks the Nightbird a life entirely of its own.

While I can’t say it’s a lovely novel—in fact, it’s filled with cruelty, danger, murder, deceit, violence, abuse and tragedy (among other grotesque things).  It isn’t a novel for the faint of heart, that’s certainly assured—it has been so lovingly crafted by its author that it creates a singularly pleasant experience in the reading.  It’s not necessarily a thrill-a-minute story, but it keeps a decent pace and lays out enough bread crumbs as to entice readers to dig deeper and explore farther into the dark heart of Fount Royal and its surrounding wilderness.

Additionally, I liked that McCammon made careful note of Matthew’s emotional and physical state as his investigation proceeds, pinpointing great moments of change, remarking upon his intellectual and emotional evolution.  Matthew is such a critical character to Speaks the Nightbird that I thought it only appropriate that the author spends a great portion of his time dedicated to noting Matthew’s character development.  I like that, as a reader, I get to see the full range of his growth.

Not only does McCammon allow his readers the opportunity to enjoy the development of his characters, he also fully immerses his readers in the world he seeks to create.  Speaks the Nightbird dives headfirst into the history of early, colonial America, broaching subjects of even the most unsavory origin and touching upon the incredible cultural differences between the modern world and the Carolina Territory in 1699.

For instance, I discovered mention of wasps used as pest control.  Apparently, wasps were allowed to build nests in the homes of colonial settlers, in order to control the population of mosquitos and other pests, which is a prospect that I find entirely terrifying—and, of course, mystifying in the modern age.  Likewise, I stumbled upon instances of bloodletting and “blistering” (don’t ask) in medical treatments.  It’s truly fascinating to compare the world I know and the world of the distant past, which McCammon shows me, and see the incredible differences between them.

As much as I enjoyed Speaks the Nightbird, I should be completely honest that McCammon’s novel isn’t the best choice if a reader finds oneself made squeamish by blood—or uncomfortable with shocking behavior, including but not limited to murder, brutality, bestiality, abuse, greed, torture, and etc.

I must admit that I was scandalized by Fount royal and its superstitious citizenry.  Surprised, horrified, disgusted, sickened—scarred may even be accurate—just to name a few of the feeling that influenced my emotional state.   I mean, there’s the utterly horrible dean of the almshouse where Matthew lived as a child and the noxious Shawcomb, neither of whom is technically a citizen of Fount Royal; however, I think that’s beside the point.  There really is no respite from the terrible things that seem to keep happening.

Full of adventure, intrigue, suspense and mystery, Speaks the Nightbird is a truly amazing piece of work.  It’s a massive undertaking, but I was emotionally invested for so long that I simply had to find out the truth, like Matthew.  When finished, I found it brought a feeling of accomplishment rivaled by no other; however, I would recommend reading McCammon’s novel in moderation and keeping one warning in mind:  expect the absolute worst to happen, because it will—and it has ample opportunity to get worse.

Matthew Corbett Series
1. Speaks the Nightbird
2. The Queen of Bedlam
3. Mister Slaughter
4. The Providence Rider
5. The River of Souls
6. Freedom of the Mask

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Nevermore: The Brain, Moths, Family Magic, Ice Cream Star, & Lisabeth Salander

Reported by Ambrea

Our Nevermore readers jumped into the meeting with an intriguing book about incredible new discoveries in neurology.  The Brain’s Way of Healing by Dr. Norman Doidge is a compelling and insightful book about the human brain and its ability to recover, function, and even restructure through neuroplasticity.  According to Doidge, the brain can form brand new neural connections even if it sustains extensive damage through injury or disease—and the brain, which was originally considered too complex to recover from damage, has a unique way of healing.  Our reader highly recommends The Brain’s Way of Healing, saying it offers an intimate and moving look at neurology, giving readers insight into the technology of modern medicine and new scientific discoveries about the wonderfully resilient brain.

Next, our readers dived into a series that’s proved a perennial favorite with The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz.  Continuing where Stieg Larsson left off in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lagercrantz follows Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist as they run headlong into a new mystery:  a tangled web of spies, cybercriminals, and shadow governments that will put them back into the midst of danger.  Our Nevermore reader gave The Girl in the Spider’s Web an excellent review.  Calling it compelling and suspenseful, Lagercrantz’s novel was a seamless transition for the Millennium series that most have come to know and love.  She said it wasn’t as violent as the former novels, but it managed to keep the same pace, the same edge-of-your-seat suspense and intrigue that made Larsson’s novels smash hits.

Unlike The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which received exceptional praise, The Country of Ice Cream Star received less enthusiastic reports.  A post-apocalyptic narrative of epic proportions, The Country of Ice Cream Star weaves a heart-wrenching and terrifying tale of a fifteen-year-old girl as she struggles for survival amidst the wasteland known as American and hunts for a cure that will rescue her small tribe from a dreadful contagion.  Although Sandra Newman has received rave reviews for her novels and received rewards—and nominations—for her writing, our reader found her latest book less than enjoyable.  Rife with broken English that makes it difficult to understand and paced agonizingly slow, The Country of Ice Cream Star wasn’t a hit at Nevermore.  While he only completed about a hundred pages of the novel, he admitted that he wasn’t really interested in pursuing the rest of the story—he just couldn’t foresee himself ever enjoying it.

Our Nevermore readers also looked at a Gothic thriller:  Moths by Rosalind Ashe.  Nemo Boyce is a boisterous young newlywed who falls in love with the Dower House; however, after she convinces her husband to purchase the old estate, their world is suddenly turned upside down by Sarah Moore, a ghost of the actress who once lived and died there.  Two of our readers actually had the opportunity to read Moths, and they had some positive remarks to make.  One reader said it was interesting, a Gothic horror that kept her guessing to the very end; whereas another reader gave it very high marks, saying he really enjoyed it.  It was somber and a little macabre, beginning happily enough and devolving into a terrible tragedy, but he really enjoyed Moths and he devoured it quickly.

Last, our Nevermore readers trekked off the beaten path and ventured into a young-adult fantasy with Family Magic by Patti Larsen.  Sydlynn Hayle is the daughter of a witch and a demon, which makes an ordinary life complicated to say the least—and that’s not including when she crosses paths with Quaid Mormond.  But when Sydlynn is forced to protect the coven that dislikes her and save her family’s magic from destruction, she’ll be pushed to the brink of her knowledge and her power.  Our reader picked up Larsen’s novel in an effort to become better acquainted with young adult novels and find some common ground with her students.  She said it was an enjoyable fantasy novel and quick to read, an interesting encounter for her first foray into young adult literature.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Gift From Bob by James Bowen

Reviewed by Jeanne

In 2007, a recovering addict in London found an injured ginger tabby and a friendship was born.  James Bowen was eking out a living busking and selling copies of the Big Issue, trying to get his life together; taking care of Bob the cat gave him purpose.  Having Bob join him on the job brought the duo attention and an eventual book deal, resulting in the international best-seller, A Street Cat Name Bob. Fans were eager for more, so other books followed, including editions aimed at children.

A Gift From Bob, the third adult book, centers around the Christmas holiday.  Christmas never held much meaning for James, shuffled as he was between parents on different continents.  Later his family relationships were strained due to his addiction, making holidays even more problematical.  From James’ point of view, Christmas was just a way of emphasizing how isolated and unimportant he was, proof that he had no place in the world.

The bulk of the book is built around James’ memories of those Christmases, especially the last one he spent on the street before his fortunes change.  Having Bob with him seemed to bring out the best in people, for the most part.  People were drawn to Bob, and their goodwill and cheer spilled over to include James. People brought Bob toys and scarves, usually slipping in something for James as well.  It was almost overwhelming.

Even though the book covers a lot of the same ground as the previous two, this book does a good job of fleshing out some of James’ back story.  His honesty about himself and his actions make him an appealing personality and does much to remind readers that even those who are homeless and substance abusers are human, too.  Belle, another recovering addict, has more of a presence in this book, clarifying her relationship with both James and Bob.

In short, this is a lovely feel-good read guaranteed to bring a smile no matter what the season.  Pen and ink sketches mostly of Bob adorn the pages, adding to the cozy feel.  Fans won’t be disappointed.

Note: a movie based on the first book is in post- production.  It stars Luke Treadaway as James.

Friday, February 5, 2016

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Trooper

Reviewed by Ambrea

After learning of the death of his father, Judd Foxman has reluctantly agreed to sit shiva and mourn his father’s passing, spending seven full days and nights in his childhood home—with the rest of his dysfunctional family.  But more than coping with the loss of his distant and enigmatic father, Judd must come to terms with his wife’s infidelity (with his boss) and the deterioration of his marriage, his impending role as a father, and old memories and feelings that can never seem to leave well enough alone.

For Judd and his family, seven days might just last a lifetime.

In This is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Trooper presents a seriously compelling and enjoyable novel that’s simultaneously well-written and brilliantly executed.  Packed with interesting—and, more frequently, absurd—characters, Trooper fabricates a novel of incredible depth and emotion that kept me glued to the pages.

More importantly, Trooper creates a curiously gripping and hilariously funny narrator for his novel.  Judd Foxman manages to weave a compelling story about life and love, divorce, sibling rivalries and family that reveals just how complicated (and, sometimes, constricting) even the strongest bonds can be.

It’s a candid account that delves into the deepest and most searing parts of memory.  Judd bares all and tells all in his story, which means his deepest secrets and his most embarrassing moments are put on display for the reader to see—including the moment he walked in to find his boss and his wife together (and subsequently set fire to his boss with a birthday cake).  It’s hilarious and shocking, but it’s simply part and parcel of Judd’s past.

As a reader, I liked that Judd was so open and honest about his feelings, about his faults and his insecurities, and, most importantly, about his experiences.  He matures as a character, evolving to suit his ever-changing environment, and he develops new characteristics and learns from his mistakes—and I liked that I was a witness to that growth.

On the other hand, while I liked that Judd was candid in recounting his life, I feel like it’s important to mention that his honesty sometimes makes his story difficult to read.  I mean, he shares some of the worst moments and most embarrassing moments of his life.  He doesn’t spare the reader’s feelings.

Moreover, I should note that his mother is a psychotherapist with little to no discretion when it comes to discussing private matters and she has absolutely no filter.  She tells her children exactly how she sees it.  As for the rest of the Foxman family, it’s a highly dysfunctional unit.  They swear, they drink, they smoke, and they generally manage to make a spectacle in public, Judd included.   It’s a bit disorienting and certainly cringe-worthy.