Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Nevermore: Eskens, Alda, Vonnegut, Bradley, McDermott, Kasich

 Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore kicked off their meeting with The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens, a suspenseful mystery novel of murder.  Detective Max Rupert and attorney Boady Sanden are good friends, but when a case involving the murder of Jennavieve Pruitt is brought to their attention, Max and Boady are suddenly put on opposite sides of the case.  Max believes Jennavieve’s husband, Ben, committed the murder; Boady, who is representing Ben in court, believes he is innocent.   Together, they’ll clash over the facts of the case—and uncover the unsettling truth of Jennavieve’s murder.  As a fan of thrillers and mysteries, our reader picked up Eskens' novel with high hopes for a read full of intrigue and suspense.  The Heavens May Fall had an interesting conclusion and likable characters, but she thought it was “just okay.”  She noted that it wasn’t badly written and it had a rather interesting story; however, she decided it was rather formulaic—nothing too thrilling or too ground-breaking about it.

Next, Nevermore looked at Alan Alda’s memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.  Known for his starring roles on Broadway, The Aviator, and M*A*S*H, Alan Alda’s life was as turbulent and intriguing as any role he played on the stage and screen.  He begins his book with a single, memorable line:  “My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six”—and the rollercoaster adventures of his youth and young career merely continue from there.  Our reader said she immensely enjoyed reading Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.  Alda’s memoir was thoughtful and poignant yet humorous, offering both laughter and deeply emotional reflection on mental illness and familial relationships stretched to the limit.  Our reader highly recommended it to her fellow Nevermore members, saying it was worth reading for the title alone.

Remaining in the vein of humor, Nevermore checked out God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a series of short stories—originally ninety-second radio interludes for WNYC, New York City’s public radio station—by Kurt Vonnegut.  In his collection, Vonnegut visits Dr. Kevorkian as a reporter for public radio and, with the good doctor’s assistance, visits the Afterlife to interview notable personages, such as William Shakespeare, John Brown, and Eugene Victor Debs.  Our reader enjoyed Vonnegut’s short story collection, calling it a humorous visit with one of his favorite authors.  He said it was a quick, easy read, all done within an afternoon, with Vonnegut displaying his usual wit and charm.

The next book was Jefferson’s Sons:  A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  After a visit from the author to the library, our reader picked up one of Bradley’s more recent novels and dived into the world of Sally Heming’s children.  According to the book jacket, “[Jefferson’s Sons] tells a darker piece of America’s history from an often unseen perspective—that of three of Jefferson’s slaves—including two of his own children.  As each child grows up and tells his story, the contradiction between slavery and freedom becomes starker…”  Our reader thought Bradley created a wonderfully descriptive and interesting book.  Although Jefferson’s Sons is geared toward a younger audience,  she noted that it was still enjoyable to read as an adult and it weaves a story through history—an unknown, undocumented portion of history—that makes sense.

Next, Nevermore revisited The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott.  A perennial favorite in previous meetings, Nevermore returned to the interweaving stories of Sally, her widowed mother, the nuns who attempt to guide them, and the vibrant neighborhood in which they live.  Our reader said McDermott’s novel was exquisite.  Beautifully written and lovingly crafted, The Ninth Hour was an expressive and thoughtful look at the impact of a suicide—and the depths of love and forgiveness.  Although she noted it was a bit depressing, our reader thought it was a wonderful novel and she highly recommended it to her fellow Nevermore members.  “I have found my new favorite author,” she told them.

Last, Nevermore shared Two Paths:  America Divided or United by former presidential candidate John Kasich.  Part memoir and part analysis of the 2016 presidential election, Kasich’s book is a reflection on his personal life and the country as a whole.  Our reader said Kasich’s examination of his personal life was an “interesting, but rather dull” part of the book; however, he noted Kasich’s analysis of the previous presidential election was much more promising and enlightening.  “I would recommended it if you’re interested in Kasich, it’ll give you much more information on [the man],” he commented, wrapping up our meeting for the week.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher

The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher  6 titles, 2004-2009. New York: Ace books.

Reviewed by Brenda G.
          In the spring of 2011, I took a partial sabbatical from Virginia Intermont College to complete some work for Greenville County, South Carolina Schools.  An ice storm struck in my second week of this out-of-state effort. Lodged in a hotel, the restaurant next door closed, vending machines emptied, and though we had heat, lights, and water, cable and Internet were down. Schools, of course, were closed. But all was not lost! A Bi-Lo (grocery store) stood open next door. Food and reading material could be had. I thought about walking but the ice convinced me driving was preferable. In the store, I, with grateful appreciation, of course found food. I also found volume 6 of The Codex Alera, First Lord’s Fury. I prefer to read series in order; this time I was happy to find something that looked intriguing and that was not a romance, though the series contains romances, I discovered.

          I read the book, all 759 pages of it, in a single day. I liked it, especially the many unusual characters and events Butcher throws at the reader. I still like it, and I have probably read the entire series three times by now. (I do reread books I enjoy, to savor them and to look for hints and clues I might have missed.)

          Realizing schools would likely remain closed all week, I returned home the next day, Wednesday. Still lots of ice on the roads. Upon arrival in Jonesborough, I drove to Books-a-Million in Johnson City (no ice at home,) and bought the entire series, which I promptly read from beginning to end.

          What makes this series special? Sentient, highly intelligent, shape-shifting social insects. A missing Roman legion and its camp followers. Sentient canines, the Canim, who usually walk upright and communicate clearly, if one cares to learn their language. Other forms of intelligent life are also on this world, the world named Alera, including the IceMen and the Marat. And local elemental forces called furies add to the mix.

          The main character is a boy at the beginning, called Tavi. He is not who he believes he is; the truth comes later. He seems to be a small, rural boy, essentially a shepherd. He commands no special powers, despite having a talented mother and uncle. His father died years earlier. As this is a story that, to a certain extent, asks a young boy, later man, and his companions to save their world, it is a type of epic fantasy with many incredible characters. It is also thought-provoking and a lot of fun. Suspend disbelief and read! 

The series in order:
Furies of Calderon, Book One
Academ’s Fury, Book Two
Cursor’s Fury, Book Three
Captain’s Fury, Book Four
Princeps’ Fury, Book Five
First Lord’s Fury, Book Six

Friday, June 15, 2018

Cross My Path by Clea Simon

 Reviewed by Jeanne

In a bleak, dystopian world, a young woman and her black cat seek to eke out a living by, as the girl puts it, “I find things. Do the needful. Locate that which is lost.  Right the wrongs, the ones I can.” It’s the mantra of her mentor, an old man who disappeared some time ago.  This time, the girl Care and the cat Blackie are approached by a man who is looking for his companion, who may have been pressed into a dangerous service, and by a woman who seeks a token left for her by Care’s mentor.  She claims he was her brother, though Care never recalled him mentioning a sister.

Blackie, our narrator, views the situation with unease. He’s a cat, but has vague memories of once being a man. Now he experiences the world through a cat’s heightened senses but that advantage is muted because of the things he’s lost: he can no longer read the papers Care pores over, for example, nor can he communicate his concerns. As far as Care knows, Blackie is an ordinary cat. He can’t tell her that he feels there’s something wrong in these new cases that she has taken on, and that he and his beloved Care may be falling into a trap.

This is the third in the Blackie and Care Feline Mystery series and presents a bit of a problem. As a reader, I found the book to be especially significant as there are some intriguing revelations about Blackie’s past; as a reviewer, I am leery of giving away anything that would lessen another reader’s enjoyment.  I think this book could be read and appreciated by someone who hadn’t read any other books in the series but those who have read the first two will find this entry to be very gratifying indeed.

There is a slight shift in tone for me. Care has been pretty much isolated from close and lasting human relationships in the previous books except for the boy she calls Tick whom she considers a younger brother and struggles to protect. There are a few other acquaintances who show up but there are no strong connections.  This time there are more points of contact, more possible friends and allies, which gave the story a more hopeful feel. Blackie is less sure that these people are to be trusted, but Care seems willing to take a leap of faith.

Also, Care has gone from being a small, insignificant waif – one street urchin of many—to a resourceful young woman whose investigations are bringing her into conflict with the larger social machine, one with a vested interest in keeping the population hooked on the addictive drug scat and willing to do anything to earn coin. Care isn’t out to bring down this remote, dark authority, but she is determined to save those she can from being trampled to death.

While each book has its own mysteries from start to finish, it’s obvious in this entry that Simon has a larger story arc going on, one more epic in scope. It’s possible that there is a specific ending in mind already, but let us hope that is far in the future.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Nevermore: Matheson, Genova, Kushner, Tyson, Chang, Butler

 Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore jump-started their meeting off with The Best of Richard Matheson.  Best known for his novel I Am Legend and his work on Twilight Zone, Matheson was a master of twentieth-century horror and fantasy.  According to the cover synopsis, “Matheson revolutionized horror by taking it out of Gothic castles and strange cosmos and setting it in the darkened streets and suburbs we recognize as our own.”  Our reader picked up Matheson on a whim and, while she didn’t regret picking up a collection of his greatest works, she noted that she didn’t finish much of it.  “I made it through two chapters, but I had to stop [because] it scared me,” she admitted.  She noted that Matheson had a gift for the frightening, creating stories that had a heavy emotional impact—“a lot of oomph,” she said—and an underlying feeling of suspense that left her shoulders coiled with dread long after she put the book aside.

Next, Nevermore explored Factory Girls:  From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang, which offers a look at the everyday lives of the migrant factory population of China.  More than 130 million migrant workers live and toil in China’s cities, many being young women from impoverished, rural towns.  Our reader had previously explored Two Years on the Yangtze and Country Driving:  A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler, who happens to be married to Chang, and she thought Factory Girls was a wonderful book to round out her exploration of China.  Although she noted the book was rather long, she thoroughly enjoyed Chang’s book.  It was an interesting and in-depth study of women who had the courage to uproot their lives and start fresh somewhere else.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson was very popular with our next reader.  A quick but concise examination of the universe, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry offered incredible insight into the subtleties of astrophysics such as the nature of space and time, humanity’s place in the universe, and what quantum mechanics really mean.  “[The author] admitted there are things they don’t know,” our reader said, “and I was thrilled about that.”  He noted that, as a scientist, Tyson was willing to admit that human knowledge is still growing and expanding like the universe; moreover, he offered reflections on the cosmic perspective that was both enlightening and truly fascinating.

Nevermore also checked out a new book by Lisa Genova:  Every Note Played.  In her new novel, Genova tells the story of Richard, a world-renowned concert pianist with ALS, and his estranged wife, Karina, who is living an unfulfilling life as a piano teacher—and, soon, Richard’s reluctant caretaker.  As Richard slowly succumbs to his disease, he and Karina must reconcile their tumultuous past and learn forgiveness before it’s too late.  Our reader said, “This is a book that will make you cry.”  Although it was rather depressing and, of course, tragic, she noted that Every Last Note was incredibly well written, beautifully told, and wonderfully enlightening.

Next, Nevermore took a look at Kindred by Octavia Butler.  Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when, suddenly, she is transported from her home in California to the antebellum South—somehow summoned through time to save Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner.  Time and again, Dana is drawn back to the old plantation and each stay is longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until Dana fears her life will end long before it even begins.  Our reader, who is a fan of Butler, said she really enjoyed reading Kindred.  She noted that the author seriously researched her subject, drawing on historical details to give the story a strong sense of place and an astonishing emotional impact.  She highly recommended it to her fellow readers, along with Butler’s other works Fledgling and Lilith’s Brood.

Last, but certainly not least, Nevermore shared Angels in America by Tony Kushner.  Set in the 1980s, Angels in America is a Pulitzer prize-winning pair of plays that follows the interweaving lives of Prior, Louis, Joe, Harper, and Roy Cohn as they attempt to reconcile the disheartening truths of their world—and the heartbreaking reality of AIDS within the gay community.  Our reader said, “[Kushner’s play] was a tough book, but, at the same time, it’s tough to put it down.”  It’s very real, very raw, and limned with unexpected bouts of humor and heart-wrenching moments of tragedy.  Although she wouldn’t say she loved Angels in America, she liked it very much and she recommended it to anyone who might enjoy a serious, thought-provoking play on human nature.