Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blackberry Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke

Reviewed by Kristin

Joanne Fluke is back with yet another cozy cooking mystery: Blackberry Pie Murder.  Hannah Swensen is baking cookies, planning her mother’s wedding to Doc, and trying her best not to find any more dead bodies.  Cookies—check.  Wedding planning—well, this is her mother we are talking about.  No more dead bodies—oops.  Famous last words.

After an article in the Lake Eden Journal snarkily points out that it has been over four months since any member of the Swensen family has found a dead body, Hannah picks up her friend and Cookie Jar employee, Lisa, and takes her to the auto mechanic during a thunderstorm.  Going down a winding country road, Hannah and Lisa suddenly feel a thump.  That four month body-free spell?  It’s over.  Not only is there another dead body, but Hannah is arrested for vehicular homicide.

As the proprietor of The Cookie Jar, Hannah sounds as if she must be an amazing cook.  Every time a new type of cookie is mentioned, the recipe is at the end of the chapter: cook’s notes, variations and all.  All the recipes sound delicious, although I must admit that I skip over them.  Hannah and company bake at least three or four times a day, between cookies to sell at The Cookie Jar, desert for an impromptu meal, or just any time someone needs to be perked up with chocolate.  Maybe we should be shelving these in the 641.5 section.

While I found the beginning of this series to be cute and enjoyable, it has become somewhat repetitive with seventeen titles featuring Hannah, her family and her two beaus:  Mike and Norman.  Since the very first book (Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder), Hannah has been going back and forth between the handsome and exciting cop Mike, and the steady, dependable dentist Norman.  The love triangle has gone on long enough.  Hannah’s mother is getting married; it’s time for Hannah to move forward and take one of the men up on his proposal and cut the other one loose, or just cut both of them loose and move on as an independent woman.

I don’t know if I was just not in the mood for a cozy cooking mystery, but this book fell flatter than, well, a fallen cake.  Fluke is always telling us things that don’t seem to be important.  Why do we need to know that in order to install a fancy toilet in a condo, you must get the homeowners association’s permission?  Is this relevant to the mystery?  Did I miss something?  The ending is a bit of a cliff-hanger.  Perhaps Fluke is trying to keep people hooked and looking forward to the next book in the series.  I hate to “break-up” with an author, but I think it may be time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill

Reviewed by Jeanne

A young man in a Gentlemen’s Club in England makes the acquaintance of Sir James Monmouth, an older member who asks that he read a manuscript about certain events in Sir James’ life.  This request comes about after a discussion among some of the younger members regarding ghosts. Most of the rest of the book is the manuscript, a first person narrative by Sir James about an experience in his youth.   As the story begins, Monmouth is newly arrived in England after being reared abroad by a guardian.  He’s traveled in many exotic lands, but the death of his guardian has left him in want of direction.  Accordingly, he has come to London in search of material on the mysterious Conrad Vane, a travel writer whose adventures excited young Monmouth’s imagination.  He has been able to find very little in the way of autobiographical information on Vane, so he hopes to find enough to write an article or perhaps a book on the man.

 His inquiries about Vane seem to draw uneasy responses from those who knew of him, but the fascination remains strong and he sets off for a school Vane attended.  He is cordially received but instead of answers he seems to find more questions. Vane seems as elusive as ever. Then he begins to experience a series of somewhat unsettling events. . . glimpses of a pale young boy, sounds of sobbing from an unknown source, and strange dreams—or are they dreams?

Hill wrote the (to my mind!) classic Woman in Black, and this book reminds me very strongly of that title, as it uses a similar framing sequence for the main story and is written as if it were a Victorian memoir. Also like that title, the book doesn’t wrap things up in a neat little package at the end.  There’s a lot to ponder and things alluded to but no cut and dried resolution.  This is not a complaint.  I rather prefer it to easy answers, especially given the subject matter.  After all, the supernatural is all about mysteries and questions, not certainties. Her characters are memorable, even those playing small roles, and the settings are extremely vivid.

If you’re not in the mood for long, descriptive sentences or if you’re hankering for action, this isn’t the book for you.  On the other hand, if you like lots of atmosphere, dank halls and meager fires, strange weeping in the night and fevered dreams, mahogany tables and baize doors, then this might just be your cup of Earl Grey.  I must say it cooled down my perception of a humid July day quite nicely, what with the snow and cold winds beating against windows. I almost got out a quilt.

(Yes, I had to look up to see what a “baize door” was.  Apparently at one point doors were covered with cloth to help soundproof them; green baize is often used on gaming tables, such as those for blackjack or billiards.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Kindred Spirits by Sarah Strohmeyer

Reviewed by Kristin

Lynne has been depending on her circle of friends for decades.  Mary Kay, Beth, Carol and Lynne have shared their lives through the birth of children, loss of family, and even PTA meetings.  Hanging together in good times and bad, the four can count on each other for anything.  When Lynne dies suddenly, Mary Kay, Beth and Carol are committed to doing what they all promised each other; they must be the ones to clean out Lynne’s personal belongings.  What they find hidden in a lingerie drawer takes them on a whirlwind journey to fulfill Lynne’s final wishes.

While in the midst of sadness, they deepen their friendship over the course of just a few days on the road.  The memories making the women both laugh and cry are mixed with thoughts of the many martinis they poured over the years.  An old recipe book entitled “Best Recipes from the Ladies Society for the Conservation of Marshfield, 1966” had long ago turned Lynne, Mary Kay, Beth and Carol into the “Ladies Society for the Conservation of Martinis”.

As the women embark upon this journey, they each deal with things in their own lives.  Mary Kay must make decisions regarding Drake, the man she loves.  Carol is struggling to reconnect with her daughter, after Carol left her Amanda’s father a year ago.  Beth is dealing with her father’s health issues, and the loss of Lynne has hit her particularly hard.  Driving from Connecticut to western Pennsylvania in order to follow Lynne’s request, Mary Kay, Beth and Carol all learn more about their friend, and more about themselves.

I have always enjoyed Sarah Strohmeyer’s comic mystery series based on hairdresser turned investigative journalist Bubbles Yablonsky.  Kindred Spirits is an entirely different kind of book, but showcases Strohmeyer’s softer side.  While the characters are dealing with the heartbreak of losing Lynne, in the end we are left with a happy ending for each of the women and their families.

A few days after finishing this book, I still have bits swirling around in my head.  Out of consideration for future readers, I can’t share those bits here as they would spoil the reading experience.  But if this review has appealed to you, be sure to look for Sarah Strohmeyer on your next trip to the library.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Nevermore around the world: Sharyn McCrumb, Martin Sixsmith, Edward Gibbon and more!

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue continues to be passed from reader to reader at the Nevermore table.  While verdicts vary on the book, it was agreed that the two narratives running through the book made it a little confusing.  The two threads are intertwined, but occur only four days apart.  For a somewhat confusing or possibly a great book about San Francisco in 1876, check out Frog Music.

Another reader had just finished King’s Mountain by Sharyn McCrumb.  From the description of the events surrounding the Revolutionary War battle of King’s Mountain, our reader thought that the battle must have raged for months.  However, the actual engagement only lasted about two weeks, and the battle itself encompassed only sixty-five minutes.  Our reader enjoyed the book, as many others have as well.

The Guts by Roddy Doyle was again brought to the table.  Irishman Jimmy Rabbitte has been on a quest to gather old folk music and reunite bands which may want to make a comeback.  Incidentally, the Pope is coming to visit Ireland for the first time since 1932.  Our reader would love to see this book made into a movie.

Staying with the Ireland theme, Philomena by Martin Sixsmith put in an appearance.  Our reader noted that the incredible detail written in the first few pages was impossible to portray in the recent movie of the same name.  However, the movie was promoted as very powerful because it was stripped down to the essential story line.

Continuing with Ireland, a particular chapter was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects by Neil MacGregor.  In the chapter entitled: “Ireland: Failures in the Present”, the author mentions that the largest army ever assembled in England was under King Henry V in order to put down an Irish rebellion.  The Irish fighters were known as particularly savage, using guerrilla-like tactics to defend their territory.

Heading back to the United States, Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff was mentioned.  By a journalist, the book is a very personal journey through the chaos and corruption that fills Detroit.  As the decay of Detroit has been in the news lately, general opinion around the table is that Detroit has hope and may turn around to be re-born as a smaller, better city, much like New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Another reader has just begun The Passage by Justin Cronin.  Described as “sort of science fiction” with secret government experiments going on, our reader is looking forward to finishing the rest of the book.

Finally, another reader confessed to reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, but only in the abridged version.  Originally published in six volumes between 1776-1789, we can’t fault our reader for taking on the somewhat ambitious task of reading a mere 700 pages or so.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Reviewed by Christy Herndon

    On April 20, 1999 two teenage boys walked into a Colorado high school and proceeded to horrify a nation. Afterwards, time would be separated into two pieces: “before Columbine” and “after Columbine.” The massacre would spark intense focus on gun control, bullying, violence in pop culture, and even musician Marilyn Manson.

     It certainly wasn’t the first school shooting in America but it was, up until that point, the deadliest. Till this day it’s still the deadliest high school shooting. The awful irony is that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but especially Eric, did not want a school shooting. They wanted something bigger, something even more disastrous. Their attack was centered on homemade bombs, and had they gone off according to plan the death toll would have been in the several hundreds – surpassing the Oklahoma City Bombing. That was their dream. Learning of their legacy as “mere” school shooters would have been devastating to them.

    Dave Cullen, considered “the nation’s foremost authority on the Columbine killers”, compiled his findings in the book Columbine which was released in 2011. In it, Cullen seeks to debunk a lot of the myths surrounding the massacre including the aforementioned disaster plan. Several of these rumors were debunked within weeks of the attack but for whatever reason, (although probably due to media scrutiny and repetition) they became embedded in the Columbine lore.

    Other myths include:

•    Eric and Dylan were not loners. They had a sizable group of friends. Eric, who bounced around from school to school as an Army Brat, even seemed to make friends fairly easily.

•    They didn’t target jocks or popular kids. They weren’t bullied extensively either. Often times they were the bullies themselves. Their targets were everyone.

•    While it’s true that a group of teens called themselves the “Trenchcoat Mafia” neither of the shooters were a member. They had maybe one or two friends who were but that was the extent of it. The “Trenchcoat Mafia” had nothing to do with the attack.

•    Cassie Bernall is often cited as “the girl who said yes”. One of the shooters pointed his gun at her, asked if she believed in God, and when she said yes he shot her. Corroborating witnesses say this was not the case. Emily, who was trapped under a table with Cassie, maintains she didn’t have time to say anything. Several students were believed to have been asked this question, including Valeen Schnurr. One young survivor insisted it was Cassie who said it but each time he was asked to point out where the voice came from, he pointed to where Schnurr had been. The discrepancy caused quite a bit of contention. Those who opposed the Cassie version were shouted down. Emily was afraid to come forward with her account. Preachers and the media seized the idea of Cassie as a martyr and took off with it. Misty Bernall, Cassie’s mother, even wrote a best-selling book entitled She Said Yes.

Those are just a handful. Cullen’s research is extensive. He has been studying and reporting on Columbine since it happened, and he knows his stuff. It’s quite a page turner, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in true crime or newsworthy events in America’s history.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Southern as a Second Language by Lisa Patton

Reviewed by Kristin

After a self-imposed exile in Vermont, Leelee Satterfield is back in Memphis and ready to open the Peach Blossom Inn restaurant.  Even better, Peter (her love interest and the chef from the Vermont version of the Peach Blossom Inn) has come to be her chef in Memphis.  Of course, Yankee-born Peter doesn’t always understand southern vocabulary or the nuances of conversational styles.  Peter is much more direct, and doesn’t understand why Leelee can’t escape from an annoying neighbor or a longtime nemesis who wants to be invited to her restaurant grand opening celebration.  Leelee is ready to open her elegant doors, but someone is looking for a way to close her business before it even opens.

Back in her natural habitat, Leelee is reunited with her childhood mother-figure, 83-year-old Kissie.  Kissie was the African American nanny who took care of Leelee as a child, fixing hair and kissing boo-boos when her mother was not in a fit state.  Thanks to Leelee’s mother’s love affair with Glenlivet scotch, Kissie was needed more often than not.  Now, Kissie is there to care for Leelee’s two little girls:  Sarah and Isabella.  For the first time, Leelee understands how much Kissie has given of her own life to care for her employer’s family.  This is yet another instance of different cultures colliding and melding, this time racially and socioeconomically.

The cast of characters is rounded out by Leelee’s ex-husband Baker, southern girlfriends and northern friends/former employees who put in an appearance supporting the new Peach Blossom Inn.  Most everyone has Leelee’s back, except perhaps for an old acquaintance of her mother and a business rival from Vermont.

The only criticism I have of this book is that the annoying neighbor Riley has difficulty pronouncing his “R”s and the author emphasizes his speech impediment during every encounter throughout the book.  I would guess that this is because of the theme of language misunderstandings, but after a couple of paragraphs of Riley (or “Wiley”) saying things like “That alone is another benefit, as I could make a huge diffewence in the efficiency of your westauwant opewation.” I am ready to throw Riley out the door.

As a follow up to Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter and Yankee Doodle Dixie, Southern as a Second Language is engaging and well-written.  As someone who has lived in a few different parts of the country, I can understand how a newcomer has to adjust to the language and culture of a new area.  When I first moved to Birmingham, Alabama, I couldn’t understand a word the Winn-Dixie cashier said to me.  Eventually, my ears “tuned-in” and I could comprehend polite conversation once again.  I think that any transplant to the south could benefit from a course in “Southern as a Second Language”.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

Reviewed by Kristin

Huge swaths of Detroit neighborhoods are being reclaimed by nature.  Trees, prairie grasses and wild animals are becoming prominent in areas that were once covered with houses, sidewalks and factories.  I recently viewed a news story on the amount of change Detroit has seen in the last few years.  Using images from the Google Street View Trekker, a set of cameras mounted on top of a vehicle, Detroit’s decline is being documented and brought to the American eye.  (To read any of several news stories portraying this change, do an internet search using the keywords “Google street view Detroit”.)  After seeing these images, I just happened to see Detroit: An American Autopsy and I knew that I had to read it.

Violent crime is rampant in Detroit.  Charlie LeDuff begins his first chapter talking about being held up at a gas station on the east side, and even says that he should have known better than to stop there.  LeDuff had left Los Angeles with his wife and baby daughter to return to the place where he had a family network:  Detroit.  He was not unaware of the dangers therein; his mother had faced violence working in her flower shop, his brother had succumbed to peer pressure and drugs, and his sister had run away from home as a young teenager.

LeDuff paints a vivid picture of the destruction by fire of a significant number of Detroit buildings.  In fact, he spent quite a bit of time with a local fire squad.  Describing the firefighters as the closest thing to cowboys in today’s urban culture, LeDuff details the half-broken equipment and damaged protective clothing that the squad has been provided in order to go out into the city and save lives.  Beyond just the outer trappings, LeDuff seems to get to know the firefighters through their struggles and feels the pain along with them when one is lost.

LeDuff is a journalist who is no stranger to criticism.  He writes on rough subjects and many of the politicians, police officers, and people on the street mentioned either have no interest in having their actions reported, or feel that they have been poorly represented.  LeDuff’s topics are rough around the edges, yet provide an intriguing peek into the gritty urban subculture.

Despite the grime and flames, despite the grim topic, despite the moments of despair, this is an oddly compelling book.  I found myself reading it avidly.  Perhaps my background played a role:  I was born in a northern town built on a manufacturing background.  Not Detroit, but close enough geographically and anthropologically that I recognize the decline and decay of towns which once thrived with automotive factory work.  I understand driving by a factory where my grandparents once worked, but now the only activity is tall grass growing through the cracks in the parking lot.  I have seen many houses, once graceful, now divided into apartments or fallen into disrepair and decay.

I have seen boom, and I have seen bust.  So has Detroit.