Friday, February 24, 2017

The Paris Librarian by Mark Pryor

Reviewed by Jeanne

Hugo Marston, head of security for the American Embassy in Paris and former FBI profiler, receives a call from a librarian friend at the American Library. Paul Rogers knows that Hugo has an eye for collectable books and he has an interesting one he thinks Hugo might like.  When Hugo goes to purchase the book, he finds Paul in a locked room, quite dead.  It looks like natural causes, but there’s just something that feels wrong about the scene.  That feeling is magnified when Hugo discovers a young woman he’d met earlier who is researching an actress whose papers have been donated to the library—papers which were under Paul’s care and which someone, or perhaps several someones, seem determined to keep hidden.

This is my first Hugo Marston book, but it won’t be my last. For one thing, I really like Hugo.  He’s good at what he does—very good, indeed—but he also respects the abilities of others and works well with them. A good example is Lt. Camille Lerens, a French policewoman who works out of the serious crimes division: Hugo may suggest avenues of investigation, but her word is the final decision and he doesn’t try to undermine her. The same goes for his friends, including girlfriend Claudia. They come off as competent adults, not just supporting characters to make Hugo look good.

I also enjoy a good mystery that plays fair with the reader, and this one did. Having it as a locked room mystery in the grand old tradition (there are even secret rooms and passages!) was icing on the cake.

Finally, the Paris setting was well done.  There’s a sense of place without having the point belabored.

While I enjoyed this one and recommend it, there were times when I wished I had started with an earlier book as I had the strong sense that I would have understood more with some background.  Max, for example, is a friend and a good investigator but I think I would have appreciated his part more had I known more about him.  Lerens apparently has an extensive back story, explained succinctly but intriguingly at one point, and Merlyn had a large part to play in a previous book.

I do intend to remedy these gaps in the near future. Anyone looking for good, solidly plotted mysteries with well-developed, interesting characters and international settings should find this series to be a winner.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Nevermore: Hidden Figures, Lucifer Principle, Black Widowers, Fountainhead, Fire By Night

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore decided to start with Hidden Figures:  The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly.  Recently produced as a movie, Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of African American women—math teachers with brilliant minds who were relegated to teaching in the South’s segregated schools—who became “human computers” during the labor shortages of World War II.  They quickly became indispensable with their incredible mathematical skills, assisting NASA and the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in some of the greatest successes in the space race.  Our reader was excited to pick up Shetterly’s book.  She noted it was easy to read and fairly interesting; however, she thought Hidden Figures could have used a good editor and a trim.  Moreover, she thought the book could have used a little more detail about the personal lives of these incredible women.  She wanted to learn more about them personally and their accomplishments, rather than where each woman fit into the grand scheme of things, and she would have loved to have seen pictures.

Next, Nevermore looked at The Lucifer Principle.  Written by Howard K. Bloom, The Lucifer Principle is a compelling psychological study that explores the “intricate relationships among genetics, human behavior, and culture,” according to the book jacket, “to put forth the thesis that ‘evil’ is…woven into our most basic biological fabric.”  Drawing on years of scholarly research and delving deep into the darkest parts of human psychology, Bloom creates a book with depth and a weighty feeling of importance, like Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.  Our reader said Bloom’s book was absolutely fascinating; in fact, she couldn’t put it down.  She even bought her own copy, so, as she told her fellow readers, “I could ponder it.”  She highly recommended it to her fellow members and passed it on to the next interested reader.

Switching gears, Nevermore shared The Casebook of the Black Widowers by famed science-fiction writer, Isaac Asimov.  A collection of short stories about the Black Widowers, a group of friends who create and solve mysteries, riddles, and puzzles, The Casebook of the Black Widowers proved to be a hit for our reader.  He noted that Asimov’s book was “very short, very easy, but very good,” calling it interesting and charming.  Asimov, in conjunction to being a writer, was a professor of biochemistry and often inserted intriguing tidbits of knowledge into each of his books, including The Case of the Black Widowers.  Our reader was especially impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge possessed by Asimov, saying he enjoyed how easy it was to learn something new.  “You’re learning as you’re reading,” he told his fellow readers, “but in a very easy [and accessible] way.”

Nevermore also took a long, hard look at Ayn Rand’s monolithic novel, The Fountainhead.  Considered a major classic, The Fountainhead follows Howard Roark as he makes his way in the world, an architect with unyielding integrity, and recounts his passionate love affair with the achingly beautiful Dominique Francon.  Initially, our reader picked up The Fountainhead in the hopes of learning about Ayn Rand and uncovering why her books have remained classics for decades; however, she found she was disappointed by the extreme selfishness of Rand’s protagonists.  Objectivism, which Rand touted, she explained to our fellow readers, appears to involve the pursuit of one’s own happiness regardless of consequences—and many of the characters involved in Rand’s novel appear to make decisions based on this ideal.  She also noted it is full of introspection and individual monologues, giving it the feel of a modernized Russian novel.  “If Tolstoy had lived in America in the 1920s, I believe he would have written this novel,” she said.

Last, Nevermore inspected a brand new book by debut author, Teresa Messineo:  The Fire by Night.  Jo, an Italian-Irish girl from Brooklyn, and Kay, a small-town girl from Pennsylvania, first met in nursing school.  They became fast friends, despite their very different backgrounds, and they quickly grew inseparable—and then the war came.  Now, Jo is caught in war-torn France with six wounded soldiers in her care and German soldiers nipping at her heels; Kay is trapped in a Japanese POW camp in Manila, struggling to protect herself and the patients thrust into her lap.  Our reader was absolutely fascinated by The Fire by Night.  She said Messineo delves deep into history, carefully reconstructing the details of World War II and bringing the conflict to life on the page.  It’s bittersweet and tragic, but it’s very, very good, and our reader can’t wait to hear more from Teresa Messineo.

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Reviewed by Ambrea

Elsa is seven years old; her grandmother is seventy-seven.  Elsa is different from most kids—intelligent and bright and socially awkward, she’s intimidating to most kids her age; her grandmother is crazy, as she describes, “standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy.”  But they’re the best of friends.  Each night, Elsa and her grandmother travel to the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, a place of stories and fairy tales and strange creatures where no one is normal and everything is different.

However, when Elsa’s grandmother dies, she leaves behind a series of letters—a string of apologies to deliver to those she has slighted over the years—and Elsa is tasked with delivering them.  Her grandmother’s letters eventually lead her throughout her apartment building.  She meets the wurse, a monstrous creature with a fondness for chocolate and cookies and milk; she encounters The Monster, the rather terrifying stranger who lives on the next floor; and she makes the acquaintance of other misfits whom her grandmother helped, which takes her on an adventure both unexpected and grand.

I loved reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman.  Although it took me a little time to sink into the story, especially when so many characters became involved, I absolutely loved Backman’s novel.  I enjoyed the authentic—sometimes explosive, sometimes heartbreaking, but always genuine—emotions in this book; I enjoyed the sheer oddity of it; I enjoyed the threads of danger and adventure woven into the story.  Moreover, I enjoyed Backman’s storytelling, recounting the tales of Wolfheart and the Wurse and all the fairy tales of Miamas.  I even enjoyed Britt Marie (and that’s saying something).

Overall, I loved reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  I especially liked the characters:  they’re so different.  Each has his or her own history that changes them, makes them a unique personality—and yet they’re all tied together by the thread of Elsa’s grandmother.  She brings them together in an oddball quest to deliver letters, to apologize for the wrongs in her life and rectify the things she can no longer fix.

But Elsa, I think, was my favorite.  She’s a smart, headstrong little girl.  She’s read the Harry Potter series numerous times, she’s proficient in her grandmother’s “secret language,” and she’s a frequent purveyor of Wikipedia, an avid researcher of the mundane and the obscure.  She’s such a unique personality, I couldn’t help liking her—and, of course, her crazy, paintball-gun-wielding grandmother.  They give the novel a distinctive flavor that makes it one-of-a-kind.  I couldn’t help but fall in love.

Admittedly, I loved the entire thing, even the parts that were difficult to read.

In his novel, Backman sometimes shows the worst side of people:  drugs, alcohol, grief, bullying, social and behavioral problems, and more—so much more that it will break your heart.  He’ll show readers things that are hard to see; however, he’ll balance these things with unexpected humor and insight and heartwarming moments of friendship, compassion, and love.  I would call his novel bittersweet, because it so closely mirrors life.

Readers see the good and the bad, all the difficult sides of human nature, all the struggles that weigh us down on a daily basis, but he always shows the sweeter things in life.  Like best friends and wonderful mothers and good stories and loyalty and, wonder of wonders, laughter.  Sometimes, life isn’t always good, but this book makes you feel like things will get better in the end.  Grief hurts, but friends and family can help bear the burden.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: or, On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King

Reviewed by Kristin

When I think of Sherlock Holmes, I picture a pipe-smoking figure in a deerstalker hat with a magnifying glass, haughtily spouting his deductions about the ne’er-do-wells skulking about in the shadows.  This image has become part of pop culture, even spreading to younger generations as the modern BBC version of Sherlock has become a popular television show.  Beyond the original Arthur Conan Doyle books, (as most of the original stories and characters are no longer protected under copyright) many authors have taken a shot at creating their own Sherlock Holmes stories.

Laurie R. King started just such a venture in 1994 with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, featuring Mary Russell, a fifteen year old American girl new to the Sussex countryside who almost literally stumbles over Sherlock Holmes as she rambles across the land with her nose in a Latin text.  They are an unlikely pair:  an orphaned young girl with a most unpleasant guardian aunt, and a semi-retired, aging private detective whose main pursuit is beekeeping.  However, Mary’s quick mind intrigues Holmes and they soon become—if not friends—companions who challenge each other.

While there is a plot, a villain, and a dénouement, it is the flavor of the book that carried me along.  Mary (always “Russell” to Holmes) is a serious young lady with tragedy in her past.  Having lost her immediate family in an automobile accident in California, Mary returns to her family lands in England.  With her youth she brings a breath of fresh air to Holmes, his housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, and even Dr. Watson, who quickly becomes “Uncle John.”

Holmes’ gentler human side is portrayed in this story, more than just the self-important detective who proclaims his logical conclusions arrived at through brilliant deductive reasoning.  Mary seems wise beyond her years, but maintains an innocence befitting a young girl in the years during and after the Great War.  Mary is not just another version of Watson to reflect the brilliance of Holmes, but has a sharp mind of her own.  With her quick understanding and ability to reason, Mary becomes more of a partner than an apprentice, even at such a young age.

Adding to the written word, I have enjoyed the British accents on the audiobook version borrowed through R.E.A.D.S.  The pronunciation alone is entertaining—think of such words as “constabulary” and “advertisement” or even “ate” (pronounced “et”).

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is only the beginning, and I am already looking forward to the rest of the books in the series.  Fans of the original Arthur Conan Doyle books should appreciate this addition to the Sherlock canon.