Friday, April 18, 2014

Murder and Moonshine by Carol Miller

Reviewed by Kristin

The landscape and people in Murder and Moonshine seem very familiar, and with good reason:  author Carol Miller has set her debut in southwestern Virginia.  Pittsylvania County is mentioned frequently, so that’s a little bit further east than Bristol, but the descriptions of curving mountain roads and hardworking people ring true.  I picture the landscape to be similar to northern Washington and southern Russell counties.  In and out of the hollows over rough roads which might be washed out by a creek—it might not be fancy, but it certainly is home.

Daisy McGovern’s roots grow deep in her little town.  She is recently separated from her husband Matt and works as a waitress at H&P’s diner.  Hank runs H&P’s, although he and Daisy’s daddy started it together years ago.  Daisy and her mother, Lucy Hale, live at a B&B run by Aunt Emily. Aunt Emily is quite the character—even though she’s getting up there in years, she usually has her rifle on hand to scare off any unwanted wildlife of the critter or human variety.

The story begins with Frederick Dickerson stumbling into the diner just before dying.  Fred had been the unofficial tenant at Fox Hollow, Lucy’s family’s old homeplace, which seems to be of great interest to ATF agent Ethan Kinney and some other big city fellows.  Ethan is concentrating on investigating Fred’s death, and somehow seems to turn a blind eye on all the illegal moonshine being distilled and consumed in plain sight.  Fortunately he has Daisy to guide him around the roads that his GPS just can’t manage.  Daisy’s not quite an eager helper, but she figures that it’s better to show Ethan around instead of letting him stumble into things that might best be kept secret.

Rick Balsam is the local bad boy who is right around Daisy’s age.  He and his brother Bobby live in two decrepit trailers, but Rick has other aspirations as well.  Rick makes moonshine and he supplies most of the community, including local law enforcement.  Of course, even though Daisy can’t stand the sight of Rick, it’s pretty obvious that there is some attraction involved.  Throw in Ethan of ATF infamy, and Daisy is surrounded by good-looking men who are all the most infuriating and intriguing romantic possibilities in town.

This is a very promising beginning to what looks like a new mystery series.  While there are hints of romance, the mystery is what remains front and center throughout the book.  There were some repetitive phrases near the beginning that I found annoying—people were always sucking their teeth!  (Fortunately they stopped doing that.)  I believe that Miller has written a great debut with interesting characters placed in a relatable setting for readers in Appalachia and beyond.

Jeanne's two cents:  I read this book based on a couple of recommendations from people, including Kristin.  One aspect I enjoyed is that Daisy never stops to explain mountain culture to the reader, unlike many other books set in this region.  Things are the way they are.  When an explanation is made, it's to Ethan the outsider and the attitude is more "if you'd pay attention, you could figure this out" than apology for the area's quirks. I think this is definitely a series to watch.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Nevermore: Laura Ingalls, Little Failure, Pilgrim's Wilderness, and in Praise of the Gift Shop

Summary by Kristin

Nevermore started on the prairie, that is, with Laura Ingalls Wilder Country by William Anderson.  This slim book contains photographs of the modern day landscape in all of the places where the Ingalls family lived.  Interspersed are the well-known drawings by Garth Williams that were included in many editions of the books after 1953.  Family photographs are included as well.  Our readers enjoyed this look behind the scenes of the Ingalls family historical fiction book series.

Next was Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart.  The author is a 1979 immigrant from Russia with a comic literary style.  Much is made of his relationship with his Jewish family, as well as his interactions with his American classmates.  Since the family didn’t have a television, the author was more interested in talking about Anton Chekov than the latest shows.  Known as a serious novelist, Shteyngart lets his humor shine through as he describes the challenges of adapting to a new culture.

Another reader wanted to praise the library gift shop, where many different types of books are available.  She recently purchased and read a 1934 biography of Elizabeth I.  Her praise of the book included:  “It was like reading Game of Thrones.  It was like reading Shakespeare without footnotes.”  She also commented that with the low prices, she is likely to purchase books and re-donate them when she is done, further benefitting the library.

A couple of readers read and discussed Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia.  Written by a journalist, this book chronicles the settlement of Robert Hale (aka Papa Pilgrim, Pilgrim Bob, Firefly, Preacher Bob, and more) and his family on a miner’s claim in Alaskan Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.  With fifteen children, the family soon became known as a musicians dedicated to an old-fashioned Christian lifestyle.  However, behind the façade, “Papa Pilgrim” was a brutal disciplinarian who abused his family and fought against the federal government

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Big Kitty and Cat Nap: Shadow and Sunny Mysteries by Claire Donally

Reviewed by Jeanne

As should be obvious from my previous reviews, I have a weakness for mysteries with cats. I like to peruse (note I refrained from saying “purruse”) the paperback book shelves for titles with cats on the cover.  It should be noted that a cat on the cover doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a cat in the book, but often is illustrator shorthand for “This is a nice little mystery book.”  Dogs are now being employed in much the same way, for fans who aren’t ailurophiles; and for people who aren’t fond of animals, there are books with pictures of food (usually of the pastry variety) or some craft.  Anyway, here are two of my recently read mysteries with cats:

Sunny Coolidge left her little Maine town for the big city with dreams of making it as a journalist, but her father’s heart attack brought her back home to care for him.  Unfortunately, job prospects are pretty slim in Kittery Harbor and she ends up working for a travel agency owned by a former classmate who fancies himself a mover and shaker.  She feels a bit of a failure, and she has some other incidents from her time in the city she’d like to forget, but she’s not really comfortable back home, either. There’s also the semi-requisite handsome lawman. 

In the first book, The Big Kitty, Sunny meets local crazy cat lady Ada Spurance who needs help finding her $8 million winning lottery ticket which is lost somewhere inside her house.  When Sunny goes to her house to aid in the search, Ada is dead at the bottom of the stairs. Some people assume it was just an unfortunate accident, but Sunny suspects there might be something more to it.  She also ends up being followed by a gray haired male with designs on moving in—Shadow, one of Ada’s many felines.  Given the title of the series, the outcome of that question is pretty much settled from the start.

In Cat Nap, a skirt-chasing veterinarian is murdered.  The vet in question is the ex-husband of Sunny’s frenemy, Jane, so Sunny is drawn in against her better judgment.  The fact that Sunny and Jane are the ones to discover the body certainly doesn’t help their standing with the local police department. Meanwhile, Shadow is not pleased that one of the Two Legs keeps bringing a puppy into his domain.

While there are a number of cozy clichés, the characters are bit more nuanced than some.  Sunny is ambivalent about some of her relationships, struggling not to feel resentful at times. Shadow the cat does part of the narration, but he remains relatively catlike—in other words, he’s not interested in solving mysteries other than where his next meal is coming from—but still a very intelligent cat with a strong and distinctive personality.  The supporting cast is also good, especially Sunny’s father, a former cop who is struggling to adjust to dietary restrictions and having a grown daughter in the house.  He also has a romantic interest in an age-appropriate lady The mystery in the second book was particularly well done, with several quick twists and turns at the end.

In short, this is  a solid series with likeable characters and good plots.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pam Neal's Book Talk: Divergent

Interview by Kristin

Pam Neal is our young adult librarian extraordinaire.  Pam is known for her ability to match people, especially teens, to books.  This is the first of several blogs devoted to the popular world of young adult literature.  For the uninitiated, here’s a quick blurb on Divergent:

The world has changed.  After a catastrophic war, the surviving leaders made a decision to restructure society.  All individuals were placed into factions, societal groups which put their talents to the best use.  The Abnegation are the Selfless—they live a plain lifestyle and are also trusted to govern the entire society.  The Erudite are the Intelligent—those who seek knowledge to support the betterment of the world.  The Candor are the Honest—seeing everything in black and white, seeking openness to promote a perfect society.  The Amity are the Peaceful—working together and farming to feed the population.  The Dauntless are the Brave—the protectors of the city.  In this society all 16 year olds are given an aptitude test on a certain day of the year, and then choose their faction in a ceremony the next day.  Most stay with the faction they were born into, but some feel the call of another group.  There is a training period for all initiates and they must pass through the challenges before they are full-fledged members of their faction.  If they fail, they live factionless on the outskirts of society, a fate almost worse than death.

Abnegation-born Beatrice (Tris) is 16 years old, and it’s time for her choice of a lifetime.

Kristin:  Thank you for talking to me about Divergent.  I know Divergent is such a popular book right now and that your teen group has really liked it.

Pam:  All of my teen groups have read it.  From tweens all the way up.  That’s why when I took the kids to the movie, there were 59 of them.

Kristin:  You are a brave woman.

Pam:  Well I had other parents!  It’s good to make the comparisons between the books and the movies.  And when you take kids to the movies that have read these books, they’re going to let you know if they don’t like something.

Kristin:  What makes this one special and why is it worth reading?

Pam:  I liked it and I think my kids liked it because it’s dystopian and in this world in the future you have to live in these factions.  You have to live within that faction and you cannot go outside of that realm, or you become “Divergent”.  Divergents threaten the system because they don’t want you have to have a mind of your own.  The faction aspect made this one a lot different.  Now there was some violence, but not nearly what you had in some of the others.  So I think the concept of the factions kind of set it apart.  Of course all these  future dystopians are so negative.  I mean, it’s a negative world!

Kristin:  It seems like founders of the society were trying to set it up as a utopia, but obviously it didn’t work.

Pam:  Right, and so it’s everything just negative, negative, negative in their world.  And I liked the relationships between the kids.

Kristin:  How do you think that your teens related to the “faction before blood” thing?  Is that part of striking out and finding their own identities?

Pam:  I think they had a hard time with the factions at first.  Before all of them read the books, we took the faction quiz to see what faction they would be in.  I gave that to every one of my kids, and of course most of them would find out that they’re not clear cut in a faction, that they are divergent.  When the factions start unraveling, I think they kind of expected that.  But the concept was interesting to them because I don’t think they’d ever thought of that before.  I’d never thought of that before, “Hmmm, let’s put us into a category.”  Because I’ve never fallen into a category!  So I thought the categories were interesting.  Abnegation the selfless, Erudite the intelligent, Dauntless the brave-- Dauntless really caught their attention-- then Amity, the peaceful, which is, if you look at it, the hippies of the sixties.  And Candor, everything’s black or white.  I like the way that in the movie they dressed everybody according to their faction.

Kristin:  And that was described in the book.

Pam:  I liked the way they did that.  I thought it was neat and the kids thought it was too.

Kristin:  So obviously we don’t want to give too much away, but Beatrice, or Tris, and her brother Caleb were both born into Abnegation, and it’s pretty obvious early on that Tris is drawn to Dauntless.

Pam:  It’s really funny when kids read the books—I’m older, but I was never drawn to Dauntless.  There would be no way I would be Dauntless, absolutely none.  Watching some of these kids read it, I would see which way they were drawn to certain things.  Of course I know they painted Dauntless (so that readers would) to be drawn to Dauntless.  I was never drawn to Dauntless, but Tris is, and her brother is drawn to Erudite.  I thought it was interesting how the parents came from different factions too.  I think Four is a very interesting character.

Kristin:  And of course he’s very attractive, in print and in the movie.

Pam:  Yes, I thought the two of them together did an excellent job.

Kristin:  Once you know a little bit more about where he came from, it makes sense that they’d have that attraction to each other.

Kristin:  Will the teens read the rest of the trilogy, Insurgent and Allegiant, in book club?

Pam:  We’ll go to the movies, but this series takes a big turn.  Insurgent—very popular.  Allegiant—very controversial, especially for a young adult series.  I thought Insurgent took Divergent to another level and I enjoyed it.  Then you hit Allegiant which really hits the controversial level.  I liked Divergent better than The Hunger Games because I liked Tris’ character.  I liked Divergent also because it just keeps moving.  Mainly though, I like Tris and Four.

Kristin:  So the characters?

Pam:  I thought it was very character driven.  I was a little bit disappointed in the movie because they didn’t develop the other characters as well.  They left out Uriah, who was one of my favorite characters.  But he’ll have to be in the second movie.  I think Veronica Roth hits Tris’s growing stage.  Tris grows from this little girl, very cowardly in a way, to what she wants to be and I think she does a very good job at that.

Kristin:  Right, because she’s really been groomed to be selfless and only allowed to look in the mirror once every six months. I liked that they carried that over to the movie.

Pam:  I do too.  I liked Katniss in the Hunger Games, but Katniss, to me, she was always right there, always fearless.

Kristin:  She was more of a born leader and was already going out there to provide for her family so it wasn’t as much of a change.

Pam:  But for Tris there was a huge change.  And I think that the kids like that.  I think it’s one of the very few books that I’ve done with all the groups.  It never ceases to amaze me: 43, 44 years I’ve been a librarian with teenagers, boy if they don’t like something, they don’t like it, and they tell you.

Kristin:  It’s good that you’ve got them talking to you.  What other series would you recommend?

Pam:  The Giver by Lois Lowry.  The Giver set the stage for a lot of these dystopians.  It won the Newbery prize.  I did The Giver with kids, and I did A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle because that sets the stage for a lot of these dystopians also.  See, the kids today don’t realize that The Hunger Games was not the first dystopian.  You had Brave New World and you had 1984.  You had quite a few.
Kristin:  It’s all new to them, it’s their generation.

Pam:  The movie I’m interested to see next is The Fault in our Stars by John Green.  Oh, I love that book.  So I’ve decided to alter my whole summer to have a John Green summer.  Except for my tweens—they want to do Neal Shusterman’s Unwind Unwind is phenomenal.  And you talk about bringing up a lot of questions!  I just loved The Fault in our Stars.

Kristin:  That should be a good movie though.  I think the writing was very good.

Pam:  Being a librarian for as long as I have, that’s probably one of the best books I’ve read for kids.  I’m glad young adult literature is huge now.  It’s at its peak because lots of adults are reading it.

Kristin:  It is appealing because they tend to be shorter, and they get to the point faster.

Pam:  And they are building good characters that you can identify with.  So it’s really good.  Legend by Marie Lu is another series. The books are Legend, Prodigy, and Champion.  Those characters are good.  Another good one is The Maze Runner by James Dashner.  I did that with my tweens.  The Maze Runner is a modern day Lord of the Flies.  It is excellent—it’ll grab you.

Kristin:  Thank you for talking to me today—it’s always enjoyable to hear you talk about books.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wilson by A. Scott Berg

Reviewed by William Wade

What are the characteristics of a biography that make it truly outstanding?  First, it provides the reader with a well researched and organized narrative, written with both style and grace.  Second, the author includes personal characteristics, even eccentricities and foibles,that give depth to the subject’s persona rather than being no more than a cardboard cut-out.  Third, the author seeks to define his subject in the timeframe in which he lived, in short, his importance and influence in history.

Judged by these standards, A. Scott Berg’s recent Wilson, a biographical study of our World War I president, is a stunning success.  There have been many studies of Woodrow Wilson over the last century, but this one now stands forth as the definitive choice.  It is a long book – over 700 pages – but Wilson lived a full and energetic life, most of it in the public eye.  While one can read selectively those  passages that are of most interest, the full impact of Wilson on his times calls for a steady reading from cover to cover, even if it takes a considerable time.

Berg presents Wilson (1856-1924) as a man driven by two fundamental characteristics.  First of all, he was bred in 19th century American Presbyterianism, which held that God was active in all aspects of life and it was the duty of every Christian to shape his life by a careful following of Christian principles.  Second, Wilson had an abiding faith in democracy, strongly persuaded that people fare best in democratic societies.  These two impulses made him a crusader, and throughout life he found himself battling for God-ordained democratic standards against evil and corrupting influences.

As president of Princeton University, he sought to abolish the snobbery of exclusive eating clubs; when governor of New Jersey he battled the entrenched bosses who made a mockery of a functioning democracy; as President he set forth the principles of the New Freedom, that enlightened government could be a constructive force reinforcing an egalitarian democratic society; when he led the nation into World War I, the cry was to “make the world safe for democracy”; and when he fought cynical world leaders for a just peace at Versailles, it was for the principle of “self determination of all peoples.”  Finally, when he battled a reluctant Senate for American membership in the League of Nations, it was the necessity for enlightened American wisdom to save Europe from another World War.  Little wonder that in the latter stages of his life, he was felled by a paralytic stroke that left him with a rigid personality,  unable to made modest compromises to enable America to join his beloved League.

This is an important book, because so many of the international issues that beset us today – an autocratic regime in Russia, the search for peace in the Islamic world, and the rise of a Communist-nationalist state in China – were all shaped by events taking place when Wilson was president.  It’s instructive not merely for a century ago, but for the world in which we live today.

Wilson, by A. Scott Berg.    New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.   743 pages.  Classification: 973.913/Ber.

Dr. Wade is  professor emeritus at King University where he taught history and political science.  He is a member of the Nevermore Book Club which meets on Tuesdays at 11:00 AM at the Bristol Public Library.  Join us for coffee, books, and doughnuts from the Blackbird Bakery!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Out of Circulation & Silence of the Library by Miranda James

Reviewed by Jeanne 

The “Cat in the Stacks” mystery series by Miranda James is set in Athena, Mississippi, where widower Charlie lives with a part time housekeeper and some assorted lodgers. He works part time as an archivist at the local university and volunteers at the public library. Charlie has two adult children and a budding romance with Helen Louise who runs a café featuring French pastries. He also has an unusually large Maine Coon cat named Diesel who accompanies him everywhere.

In Out of Circulation, Charlie is on the library’s fund raising committee along with the Ducote sisters, two elderly ladies who preside over much of town society.  Also on the committee is Vera Cassity, an abrasive outsider with more money than grace or sense, and the knack of infuriating people.  When Vera turns up dead at the costumed gala, the suspects are many and include Charlie’s housekeeper, Azalea. The Ducotes are some of James’ best characters, feisty but well-bred ladies who are going to have a mystery of their own later in the year.  I like the way that the author used the gala to lightly explore character and to give a clue to the solution.

Silence of the Library, the latest book in the series, has the public library setting up a display devoted to teen sleuths, including Veronica Thane whose short lived series was overshadowed by Nancy Drew and company.  Surprisingly, the author is still alive and lives nearby.  She’s also willing to make an appearance in conjunction with the display. Suddenly fans and collectors are showing up, all anxious to meet the elderly woman or at least make some cash by having her autograph books. When someone turns up dead, Charlie feels he needs to try to figure out the mystery before anything else goes wrong.   For me, part of the fun of this one was reading about the teen sleuths of yesteryear, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and others.  James even wrote some chapters for Victoria’s adventures in the style of the old mystery series. I especially appreciated the mentions of the lesser known series, which brought back fond memories.

Overall, this is a gentle cozy series, given to chaste romance and little cursing.  Charlie is good- natured, mild, and calm, while Diesel chirps and purrs. There’s some Southern atmosphere and usually some literary references for fun. I appreciate the series’ overriding theme of tolerance: for characters who are different, or for allowing people to live their own lives.  For example, Charlie struggles mightily not to interfere with his children’s lives.  He knows what he thinks they should do, but is careful to let them make their own decisions. Occasionally, there’s some repetition—everyone who meets Diesel for the first time wants to know what kind of cat he is and how much he weighs, which is natural, but when he meets three new people in short order it gets a bit old. 

Incidentally, when James decided to write the series, a deliberate decision was made to have a male protagonist instead of the more usual female cozy sleuth. On the other hand, tradition was upheld with a female author.  “Miranda James” is the nom de plume of Dean James. Perhaps it was felt that a male author and male protagonist wouldn’t be cozy enough!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Looking Ahead to Summer: Mockingbirds, Cuckoos, and More

Every few days, it seems, we get just a taste of spring—and then the cold and the wet and the winds pick up again, so that it’s back to winter coats, hats, and gloves.  Still, that little bit of warmth gives us hope for the summer, when the livin’ is easy and there’s a boatload of new books from the publishers for beach reading.  All the usual names are there—Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Dorthea Benton Frank, and James Patterson-- but here are some titles which caught my eye:

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills is due out in July.  Did everybody automatically think of Harper Lee when you saw the title?  Since her iconic book To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee virtually owns the word in a literary sense, and yes, this is about Harper Lee.  Mills was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune who wanted to get the interview of a lifetime:  to talk to the reclusive author.  Many journalists have tried and failed; Marja claims to have befriended Lee and her sister and promises to reveal why Harper Lee never wrote another book. There was a bit of controversy when the book was first announced, with a statement being issued that the Lee sisters did NOT cooperate with any book.  This was followed by a statement disavowing the denial.  I have to admit, this makes me very curious about this book—and I would love to know what Harper Lee thinks of it, too.

Thriller fans have a new Brad Thor book to look forward to this summer, but I can’t tell you the title.  Apparently, it’s really hush-hush.  It’s still listed as Untitled Thriller #13.  Unless, of course, that really IS the title…

Opinion was divided about The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith.  Some thought it was a perfectly adequate mystery, others thought it good, and another faction found it rather dull.  Then it was revealed that “Robert Galbraith” was really J.K. Rowling and opinions immediately polarized.  It was dreadful, it was wonderful, it was the best, it was the worst.  Some of the reviewers actually went to the trouble of reading the book, but I’m not sure how many.  Anyway, for those who honestly liked it no matter who wrote it, there is a second Cormoran Strike book due out in June. The title is The Silkworm.

We’ve had people on reserve for Greg Iles’ book The Bone Tree for well over a year now.  (Actually, I think it’s closer to two years, but let’s not quibble.) After the title was announced, Iles was badly injured in a traffic accident in 2011.  The publication date kept being pushed back.  Now comes word that Iles’ next book is Natchez Burning, the first book in a trilogy; The Bone Tree is listed as the second volume in the series, with Unwritten Laws as the final book.  The trilogy features Penn Cage, the prosecutor from several previous books, including The Devil’s Punchbowl.

Speaking of waiting, it’s been five years since Larry McMurtry’s last book, so fans are more than ready for The Last Kind Words Saloon. An English lord comes to the West to start a cattle ranch.  There are appearances by Wyatt Earp, the Clantons, and Doc Holliday, so it sounds as if it should be a lively convergence.

And I was not exaggerating about James Patterson:  he has books scheduled for March (NYPD Red 2), May (Unlucky 13), June (Invisible), and August (Private Down Under.)

Happy reading!