Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Nevermore: Lady Bird, Murder in Time, Ceremonial Time, Blood at the Root, and Packing for Mars

Reported by Ambrea

This week, one of our Nevermore members had a new book to share with her fellow readers, launching into a review of Jan Jarboe Russell’s biography of Mrs. Claudia Johnson—or “Lady Bird,” as she was more famously known.  In Lady Bird, Mrs. Johnson takes center stage and, through a series of interviews, shares glimpses of her life, her career, her place in the presidency, and her complicated relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson.  Our reader said she enjoyed reading Russell’s biography on Lady Bird, saying it was both interesting and insightful.  It provides such detailed information on the former First Lady, on her career as a business woman—she was, in fact, a highly successful one—and her influence on presidential policy.  Moreover, Lady Bird offers a thoughtful look at issues such as Vietnam, Civil Rights, racism, and roadway beautification, details our reader said she greatly enjoyed.

Next, Nevemore looked at a brand new novel, Murder in Time by Julie McElwain.  Part science fiction, part historical thriller, Murder in Time follows Kendra Donovan, a rising star in the FBI—and, currently, a rogue agent after half her team is murdered in a raid gone wrong.  Her sights set on vengeance, Kendra doesn’t expect to flee an assassin or, as happens, stumble into a wormhole that leads her to Aldrich Castle in the year 1815.  Our reader said she thought McElwain’s novel was very good.  “It’s…a good mystery,” she said.  She admitted it wasn’t her usual fare, but she found herself curious to reach the end and, moreover, she enjoyed the trip.  She mentioned that A Murder in Time is actually the first book in a new mystery series with A Twist in Time following sometime next year.

Nevermore also picked up a curious little history book called Ceremonial Time:  Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile by John Hanson Mitchell.  As Mitchell details in the first chapter, Ceremonial Time is a book about history, but it is also a book about the future and the slow, inexorable movement of time on one small plot of land.  “Every morning between April and November, weather permitting, I take a pot of coffee up to [the plum] grove to watch the sun come over the lower fields and I think about things.  More and more now I find myself thinking there about time…and how none of these stages, neither past, nor present, nor future, is really knowable,” writes Mitchell.  A curious blend of history and narrative, Ceremonial Time was a real treat for our reader.  She said she enjoyed it immensely, and she was glad she discovered it on the library discard cart.

Next, Nevermore moved to review Blood at the Root:  A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips, which tells the gripping and harrowing story of Forsyth County, Georgia, which essentially “purged” the county of its African American population.  In 1912, three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a white girl—and violence quickly ensued.  All three men were eventually lynched, and the entire African American population—all 1,098 citizens—was driven out of Forsyth by violent racial prejudice.  Our reader, who knew of Forsyth County, picked up Phillips’ books with the interest of learning more about such a heinous and terrifying event; however, he admitted he had to eventually put it aside because he could not abide by the terrible things witnessed in this book.  Phillips creates a meticulously detailed and wonderfully written book on a horrifying moment of history, and he does so with a honesty that is both jarring and refreshing.  Our reader was impressed by his work, but he simply did not wish to learn more of the atrocities inflicted on Forsyth County that continues to reverberate to this day.

Last, Nevermore looked at Packing for Mars:  The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach.  After hearing about Grunt from another reviewer, our reader couldn’t wait to get ahold of some of Roach’s work—and she was very glad she had the chance to read Packing for Mars first.  Both humorous and insightful, Packing for Mars was a wonderfully informative book and a fun way to learn a little more about space travel, NASA, and mankinds’ (among other species) trip out into the open void.  Our reader said she absolutely loved reading Roach’s book, and she admitted that she learned more than a few surprising facts about space and the astronauts who ventured there.  She was also surprised to learn that technology doesn’t always work the same in space.  Fuses, for instance, don’t work in space:  when the fuses “fries,” a piece of metal in the middle melts and drips off, stopping the current, but in zero gravity it doesn’t—which makes for some very unhappy machinery.  “Who would have thought?” our reader proclaimed.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

Reviewed by Ambrea

1819:  Owen Wedgwood, famed as the “Caesar of Sauces,” has found himself kidnapped by a strange and ruthless pirate captain known as Mad Hannah Mabbot and named chef aboard the Flying Rose.  Now trapped on Mabbot’s ship, Wedgwood learns he must cook a satisfactory meal for her each Sunday if he hopes to survive on the open seas.  But, as he spends more time aboard the Flying Rose, Wedgwood discovers there is a method to Mabbot’s madness—and he’ll discover companionship in the most unlikely places.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown is a strangely compelling novel, yet I’m still not sure what to think.  It’s a long, winding odyssey that takes our narrator, Owen Wedgwood, to the edge of the empire and nearly drags him to the depths of the sea.  Like Odysseus, Wedgwood—or Wedge, as Mabbot affectionately calls him—takes a journey that leads him across oceans and into the dens of monsters.  You can almost think of Mabbot as Calypso, a cross between a wicked temptress and a pirate queen.

Alluring and wild, Mabbot is as dangerous and capricious as the sea.  She’s just as liable to like you as shoot you, and yet she has a strange moral compass that leads her to punish slavers, opium peddlers, murderers and anyone who crosses her.  She is, as Wedgwood accuses, a red-haired tyrant, but she’s not unduly cruel or intentionally malicious.  She’s a strange amalgamation of opposites, which makes her oddly likable.

Like Wedgwood, I didn’t know what to make of her.  I mean, is she a villain or is she a hero?  Neither, I suppose.  She’s just a woman who has been tempered by the sea and shaped by the unkindness, barbarity, she’s endured.  She’s human and she’s desperately flawed, which makes her compelling—and, truthfully, a bit hard to stomach.

Piracy is an occupation that’s neither gentle nor gentlemanly.  It can be senselessly cruel and completely tragic, which reflects in Brown’s novel; moreover, it’s also an occupation in which readers will not find a hero.  In Cinnamon and Gunpowder, it’s impossible to look upon the world with only one version of right and wrong.  There is no black and white, merely the anticipation of survival.  You won’t find anything heroic about Mabbot, despite our fondest expectations set by Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Altogether, Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an intriguing if unusual novel.  It’s an adventure story, but it’s quite unlike what I’ve read in the past, especially regarding pirates.  Sure, I’ve had a taste with Pirates! by Celia Rees, as well as the Wave Walkers series by Kai Meyer and Vampirates by Justin Somper.  But those are so mild in comparison to Eli Brown’s novel, which is weighed down by tragedy and riddled with the cruel truths of reality.

It belongs in a class of its own, truly.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Baker Street Jurors by Michael Robertson

Reviewed by Jeanne
When Nigel Heath of 221 B Baker Street receives a jury summons addressed to “Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” he does what he feels is the sensible thing:  he folds it into a paper airplane and sails it out the window.  After all, the requirements of his lease state that he only has to answer letters addressed to the fictional occupant of his address, and a legal summons doesn’t exactly qualify.  Unfortunately for Nigel, the next summons to that address does have his name on it, and so he finds himself in a jury pool for the newest “Trial of the Century.” Liam McSweeney, a famous cricket player and the hope of England in an upcoming match against New Zealand, is accused of murdering his wife with a cricket bat.  The media and public are in an uproar, less interested in whether or not he’s guilty than whether or not he’ll be allowed to play.

An unhappy Nigel finds himself chosen as an alternate, but is determined to do his best.  He quickly discovers he’s almost as interested in his fellow jurors as he is in the case itself.  Nigel’s especially intrigued (and attracted to) a lovely lady with a tattoo he can’t quite see—but he’d certainly like to get a close look.  There’s also a tall, thin man named Sigerson who smokes a pipe, says he’s a musician, and seems to quote Sherlock Holmes a lot; an irritable businessman who seems to have a lot more than the case on his mind; and  a judge’s widow with definite ideas on how the trial should be run. Between the trial and his fellow jurors, Nigel has quite a number of mysteries on his hands.

The Baker Street Jurors is the fifth in the Baker Street Mystery series and a fine place to start if you want to just jump in.  They’re light mysteries, with a bit of humor, and a clever set-up with the tie-in to Holmes. I was hesitant to start this one as a previous reviewer had described it as slow moving and tough to get into, but I didn’t find that at all.  Also, the previous books tended to feature Nigel’s brother, Reggie, in the main role and I wasn’t sure how Nigel and I would get along.  As it turns out, fine. I wouldn’t describe Baker Street Jurors as compelling, but it was enjoyable. I did figure out some of the secrets along the way, but the ending was a surprise.  This is a good choice if you’re in the mood for a relaxing read instead of a nail-biter.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Nevermore: Deadly Company, Poor People, In Country, Behind Closed Doors and I Used to Believe I Had Forever

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore kicked things off with a curiously grisly book, sharing In Deadly Company:  Fifty Murderous Men and Women by Don Lasseter.  In Deadly Company profiles “fifty of the most heinous killers in modern history,” as the book jacket attests, and offers detailed insight into their past, their crimes, and, ultimately, their fate.  Detailed and full of interesting information, our reader found she liked reading Lasseter’s book.  It was a dark, gruesome read; however, she said she didn’t think it was all bad.  There was a silver lining beneath all the terrible stories:  All the killers listed were ones who were captured and convicted for their crimes.

Next, Nevermore looked at Poor People by William T. Vollmann.  Like In Deadly Company, Poor People proved to be rather grim reading about poverty.  For his book, Vollmann traveled the world to interview the impoverished.  He offers glimpses into the poorest cities in the poorest countries in the world, taking his readers from the slums of Klong Toey to the streets of Petersburg, Russia, to the homeless camps in Miami, Florida.  More than offering a portrait of the lives of the homeless and the destitute, Poor People allows the impoverished to tell their stories as they have lived them.  Our reader said Vollman’s book was heart-breaking, enlightening, and intriguing all at once.  She also noted that Vollmann provides a better picture of poverty in the United States that the rest of the world.  Although he does a wonderful job of painting an image of the rest of the world, he simply has a sparser gathering of information about foreign nations versus the United States.

From poverty, Nevemore went back in time to the Vietnam War with In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason.  Summer, 1984:  Sam Hughes has struggled to reconcile her father’s picture with the vague history she knows of him for her entire life.  She knows he lived in Kentucky, she knows he joined the military, and she knows he went to Vietnam—and she knows he never came back.  Sam, desperate to know more about her father and the war that claimed him, sets off on an incredible personal journey that leads her to answer she never expected to find.  Our reader raved about In Country.  She called Mason’s novel a poignant picture of loss and war and memory—and she loved every minute of the story.  She compared Bobbie Ann Mason to Flannery O’Connor for her ability to work beautiful prose and, moreover, her ability to paint an intimate portrait of rural areas.

Next, Nevermore continued with a curiously humorous collection of stories, poems, essays, and plays by William Saroyan.  Saroyan—a poet, playwright, novelist, script writer, and short story writer.  A jack-of-all-trades in the writing world—compiled I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure in 1968, an eclectic collection that, according to our reader, feels “very down home, simple” but without compromising the integrity of the work.  Our reader said he enjoyed reading Saroyan’s work.  Although he hadn’t read more than a few articles in Saroyan’s collection, he said he’d enjoyed many of the short stories and he’d appreciated the author’s ability to communicate easily with his audience.  Overall, he gave I Used to Believe I Had Forever very high marks.

Last, Nevermore showed off a brand new psychological thriller:  Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris.  Grace Angel seems to have the perfect life:  a beautiful house, a wonderful husband, a fantastic marriage—except looks can be deceiving.  Jack isn’t the affable gentleman he claims to be, neither is he the doting husband nor the charming romantic who took her to Thailand for their honeymoon; in fact, Grace knows better.  And she knows she has to get out.  Behind Closed Doors was a chilling, breathlessly thrilling novel that had our reader sitting on the edge of her seat.  She noted she enjoyed Grace’s narrative, she enjoyed the pace of the novel and the straightforward direction of the plot; moreover, she said she was invested in the story shortly after she began.  While she admitted that some of the story was hard to stomach—“If you’re an animal lover,” she warned, “don’t read it.”—she wanted to find out what happened to Grace and, ultimately, she was satisfied with the way it ended.  She highly recommended it to her fellow readers.