Monday, March 19, 2018

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Reviewed by Kristin

Celeste Ng likes to start her books with a bang.  In Everything I Never Told You, the reader immediately finds out that sixteen-year-old Lydia is dead.  But how?  And more importantly, why?

In 1970s small town Ohio, a Chinese-American “mixed marriage” is rather unusual.  Marilyn met James Lee while she was a student in his graduate seminar, immediately fell in love with him, and quickly gave up her dreams of becoming a physician.  Soon enough baby Nathan came along, then Lydia, and several years later—Hannah.  James and Marilyn have high hopes for Lydia; both hope to see her succeed in ways neither of them ever did.  James wants Lydia to be a social butterfly, liked by everyone.  Marilyn desperately wants her eldest daughter to fill her own vacated shoes academically.  Lydia wants to be her own person, but has difficulties reconciling her own desires with her parents’ expectations.

When Lydia’s body is discovered in a neighborhood lake, suddenly all that everyone thought they knew loses all meaning.

The narrative reveals the story almost in reverse, with an intricately plotted storyline swooping through various twists and turns.  As pieces of Lydia’s life are revealed, the tension intensifies.  Ng explores the relationships between the characters, both within the Lee family and with others in the community, and a very different picture of Lydia begins to emerge.  

 Who really knew Lydia?  Her mother, Marilyn?  Her adored brother, Nathan?  Her friend, Jack?

The loss of any child is heartbreaking, but the fact that Lydia was so misunderstood makes her death especially tragic.  As each family member reacts to Lydia’s death, family dynamics are torn apart and must reform in new and unfamiliar ways.

Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s debut novel published in 2014, and followed by Little Fires Everywhere in 2017.    Both begin with a huge life-changing circumstance which is gradually unwrapped and explained.  Ng writes masterfully, and I look forward to her future books.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

Reviewed by Jeanne

Ruth Galloway, university professor and archaeologist, is called in once again to examine some bones found during a construction survey.  The question is, have they stumbled on a historically important site that is going to hold up construction, or is it an old random burial, or—something else?

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Nelson is asked to look into an almost hit and run. A young woman who was driving home after dark saw a man standing in the middle of the road in front of her car, but when she got out to look for him, he had simply vanished.  The other members of the team are investigation the apparent disappearance of a homeless woman, hearing rumors of people who have “gone underground.”  The police are unsure of how seriously to take these stories until one of their informants is found murdered and another person goes missing.

This is one of those series best read in order because a great deal of the story is bound up in the personal histories of the characters.  I have to admit that I often remember more about what happens to Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad, Kate, etc. than I do the mystery that frames their stories.  The characters are complex, fully realized people which is why they are so compelling. And while most of the attention is on Ruth and Nelson, the supporting characters also have interesting lives on and off the job.  Fans of the series will find this entry to be particularly delicious, for reasons I cannot divulge without spoilers.

Yet a Griffiths novel is always more than the characters and the mystery.  There are intriguing insights into various segments of British society: the Church of England, for example, or the “rough sleepers” (homeless) who appear in The Chalk Pit.   History always plays an important role, too, and readers learn about the many chalk tunnels under Norwich.

I will say that I was disappointed that one or two questions were never answered in the book, but on the other hand many mysteries in life are never resolved.  Better to leave loose ends than to tie them up too neatly.

I highly recommend this series!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Nevermore: Sailing Alone, Coldest Winter, Roger Coleman, London Rain

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore started off with a pertinent poem by Billy Collins:
“The name of the author is the first to go
Followed obediently by the title, the plot,
The heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
Which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

As if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
Decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
To a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

Our reader checked out Sailing Alone Around the Room, telling her fellow Nevermore members that she thought it was pertinent and she “thought about us [Nevermore].”  She raved about Collins’ collected poems and highly recommended them, saying they were fun and interesting and astonishingly relatable.

Next, Nevermore shared The Coldest Winter:  America and the Korean War by David Halberstam, which delves deep into the Korean War and takes a long, hard look at the political decisions—and miscalculations—that prolonged the conflict.  Our reader noted that Halberstams’ book was incredibly heavy, literally and figuratively.  A monumental book in both its size and scope, The Coldest Winter was an interesting and comprehensive volume on the Korean conflict.  Although our reader was only partially finished with the book, she said it was filled with “a lot of people screwing up and screwing people over.”  Her review of Halberstams’ book lead to a great discussion of the start and the events that defined the Korean War.

Continuing in the vein of nonfiction, Nevermore looked at May God Have Mercy:  A True Story of Crime and Punishment by John C. Tucker.  In 1982, in Buchanan County, Virginia, a young coal miner named Roger Coleman was sentenced to death for the murder of his sister-in-law.  Despite the best efforts of Kitty Behan, a brilliant young lawyer who devoted two years of her life to gathering evidence in Coleman’s defense, Coleman was sentenced to death ten years later—and the shocking truth of the crime revealed.  Our reader said May God Have Mercy was a fascinating book with local ties.  It was both riveting and informative, offering a glimpse into the judicial process and how the handling of evidence has changed over the years.

Next, Nevermore shared London Rain, a Josephine Tey mystery by Nicola Upson.  Josephine Tey is an intrepid writer and an amateur sleuth, who often manages to step into mysteries that are nearly as dramatic as the plays she writes.  This time, Josephine is wrapped up in the murder of Anthony Beresford, Britain’s most venerable newsman, as the coronation of King George looms on the horizon—and war bubbles just beneath the surface of Europe.  Our reader said she didn’t care much for Upson’s novel.  Although she read the entire book, she admitted she only did so with the vain hope it would get better.  Overall, London Rain, while captivating for its portrait of pre-World War II London, was disappointing. (Note: for the uninitiated, the real Josephine Tey was a well-known Golden Age mystery author, best known for A Daughter of Time.)

Last, Nevermore took a look at Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.   Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Evicted is a heart-wrenching expose on the state of poverty in the United States.  For much of the book, Desmond follows the path of eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads and fight to stay afloat amidst financial devastation.  Our reader said Evicted was a moving depiction of poverty and loss, sadness and tragedy interspersed with real scenes of hope within the home.  “It is overwhelming…[to see] the way their resources were so limited, so stretched,” she said.  She found it to be enlightening, an eye-opening experience, and she highly recommended it to her fellow Nevermore members.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

Reviewed by Christy H.

            On January 12, 1888 a terrible blizzard swept across the Great Plains, taking many of its residents by complete surprise. While the days leading up to it were bitterly cold with the temperatures well below zero, on the morning of January 12th, the temperatures rose by 20 – 40 degrees throughout the prairie. 20 or 30 degrees above zero is downright balmy after enduring weeks of snow and wind. Because of this, many farmers ventured out to take care of some chores. Many children begged their mothers to let them go to school, surely tired of being cooped up at home for weeks on end. While many acquiesced, one mother had a bad feeling that she couldn’t explain. She begged her children to stay home. Only the youngest, eager to sooth his worried mother, obeyed.

            David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard is a captivating account of a freak weather manifestation in the prairie lands during the 1880s. The pull quote on the cover states it “reads like a thriller” and though I was skeptical at first I have to say that I totally agree with that. There is a bit of a slow start because Laskin explains the weather phenomena that led to the blizzard. I appreciate the attempt but I have to admit it took several re-readings of those particular paragraphs to feel like I absorbed anything (Although I’m confident that has more to do with me than the author). I won’t attempt to explain the complex meteorology but suffice it to say, a series of particular weather conditions had to be present for this anomaly to occur. And sure enough, one by one, each condition locked into place, and soon the pioneers of the prairie had everything stacked against them.

            The Children’s Blizzard, sometimes known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, earned its name unfortunately because so many school children perished.  Some teachers, not realizing the magnitude of the storm, sent their pupils home early. As the blizzard descended, survivors described it as a rolling white, “eating up” trees in the distance. It was easy for anyone to veer off path because they were constantly fighting the wind and the small, hard snow pellets that filled their eyes, noses and mouths. The snow would mix with their tears, freeze into a crust, and seal their eyes shut. Many of them were walking blind.

            What Laskin does so well, and what makes this non-fiction book read like a suspense novel, is his careful back story for these historical figures. He introduces them one by one; he describes their hopes and their heartache, and their extraordinary endurance to emigrate from their home country to literal wilderness. A few featured include:

  • ·         Walter Allen was an eight year old boy who arrived at school early that day. When the blizzard hit, the teacher dismissed them early. Just as they were leaving, men steering horse drawn sleighs pulled up to the door – five of them in fact – to help get the children home. As they were loading up, Walter realized he forgot his precious perfume bottle (filled with water and used to clean his slate). Not wanting it to freeze and break, he jumped off the cart, ran inside to grab it, and hurried back. But it was too late. The carts were leaving and already barely visible. He briefly considered going back inside but instead turned and walked out into the snow. He was miraculously found by his older brother hours later lying in the snow. He survived.

  • ·         Etta Shattuck was a young schoolteacher who survived three days in a haystack. When she was rescued the newspapers went crazy for her story and declared her a hero. Money was raised for her medical expenses but three and a half weeks after she was found she sadly passed away.

  • ·         Minnie Freeman was also a young schoolteacher who became somewhat of a celebrity. None of her pupils died, and it was said that she tied ropes to their waists to keep them all together as they ventured into the storm (though one student disputes this). As with Etta, Minnie was hailed a hero, and the newspapers couldn’t get enough of her. A song was written about her ordeal, and many men wrote to her to propose marriage.

A couple of children survived the long night only to die of cardiac arrest after taking a couple of steps in the morning. Some survived weeks before succumbing. Others lived long lives but with wooden feet or missing hands. Those who survived would never forget it, and the stories would become legends to their grandchildren and great grandchildren. It is estimated that between 250 – 500 people died.

Laskin has written a page-turning account of a truly historical storm. He details the meteorology behind it, how weather was forecast back then, and even describes the intricacies of what hypothermia can do to the body. But the heart of the story is, of course, those affected. You feel for every single child caught in the snow as well as the parents who desperately search for them. As winter winds down, I am grateful that modern technology can give us ample warning of snow and that it doesn’t have to be a devastating disaster.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Dead of Winter by Wendy Corsi Staub

Reviewed by Jeanne

In Lily Dale, it’s not considered odd if someone sees dead people.  It’s almost odd if you don’t. The town does a thriving summer business as people come from all over to attend seminars on psychic phenomenon, use local mediums to try to contact deceased friends and family, and have readings done to find out if their lives are on the right track. And yes, it is a real place.

After summer, things are slower.  Weather in that part of New York can be very unpredictable but usually snow, and lots of it, is involved so there are few tourists and many places simply close for the season. Bella Jordan, a young widow with a small son named Max, works as an innkeeper in Lily Dale and is pleased that she has a couple of reservations.  She’s also doing some renovations to the cottage, earning some badly needed extra money.  It’s while she’s working on the kitchen one evening that she sees an unusual glint outside at the lake.  She turns off the light and looks out, but sees nothing.

Unfortunately for Bella, the man dumping the body has seen her

This is the third in the Lily Dale Mystery series, but could be read as a standalone.  I enjoyed the book very much, especially the way Staub weaves clues into the narrative, often as parts of possible signs and portents.  Many times a reader will spot what is going on while the characters involved remain puzzled, which actually added to the charm for me.  

Part of the plot also involves Jiffy, Max’s friend, who has a premonition that he will be kidnapped.  Jiffy is an active child with a vivid imagination and a limited attention span. He often leads Max into trouble.  Misty, Jiffy’s mother, seems very inattentive to her child.  In this book, we get to see things from both Jiffy’s and Misty’s perspectives, giving readers a more sympathetic view of the trials of both a precocious child and a young mother struggling to make a life for herself and her child.

Characterization is one of the book’s strong points, along with a vivid sense of place.  Those who don’t believe in the afterlife or mediums or ghosts will likely find the book a disappointment, but those who have an interest in such things will find it fascinating.  The plot is solid enough, though I had a quibble or two; but give me well-developed characters, an intriguing premise, and a fascinating location and I am happy to overlook any shortcomings.