Monday, November 24, 2014

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling

Reviewed by Meygan

Hear ye, Hear ye! Attention all wizards, mudbloods, and muggles! There will be a movie adaptation for J.K. Rowling’s companion book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! All Harry Potter fans should be jumping with joy and planning what Harry Potter attire to wear on the opening night. For those of you who have not read Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, well, what are you waiting for? Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a collection of creatures recorded by Newt  Scamander. This book takes place seventy years before Harry Potter and the gang attended Hogwarts, so I am sorry to say that Harry or any of the other characters, to my knowledge, will not be making an appearance in the movie. 

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, readers will learn about various strange and rare creatures such as dragons, pixies, lobalugs, and more merpeople. For example, did you know that the Diricawl is a plump, fluffy, flightless bird that is capable of disappearing? We muggles knew it as the “Dodo bird”. Little did we know that the Dodo bird isn’t extinct after all! But don’t tell this to too many people—the International Confederation of Wizards want muggles to believe we drove this bird into extinction so everyone will understand why we shouldn’t slay our fellow creatures. True Harry Potter fans will recognize many of these creatures and beings from the series. At least one term in the book should stand out to fans: Kneazle. What is a Kneazle you ask? Hint: Crookshanks was one. If you are stumped, then you’ll have to read Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to find out!

This book is a short, easy read. It is less than 50 pages but is still stimulating because of the fascinating descriptions of the creatures and beasts. Note: This is not a story. This book is meant to be more of an encyclopedia of the magical creatures and beings mentioned throughout Harry Potter. So why write a book about these creatures and beasts? Well, to quote Newt Scamander, “The answer if, of course: to ensure that future generations of witches and wizards enjoy their strange beauty and powers as we have privileged to do!” 

According to Harry Potter Wiki, the movie will be a trilogy and the first film will be released on November 18, 2016. Yes, we have to wait just a little over two years, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that the movie will be worth the wait. J.K. Rowling will be involved in the movie as serving as a screen writer.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What Flowers Remember by Shannon Wiersbitzky

Review by Meygan

Delia looks up to Mr. Clancy, aka “Old Red”, the way a granddaughter would a grandfather. Mr. Clancy is a gardener, and he has taught Delia to become one as well. They sell and plant seeds together, and their friendship blossoms just like their flowers. Mr. Clancy is Delia’s best friend, and she can’t imagine anything coming in between them until one day, Delia notices a change in Mr. Clancy. He is becoming more forgetful, more irritable, and has a difficult time remembering people’s names. His memory eventually takes a turn for the worse, and he has to reside inside a nursing home. Delia has the brilliant idea to write down Mr. Clancy’s story that way if he ever wants to remember a memory, all he has to do is read his story that Delia has written for him. Will Delia be able to help Mr. Clancy remember who he once was? 

It seems there have been a number of children’s books taking on important subjects.  This one does an excellent job of taking on Alzheimer’s and Dementia. To my knowledge, there aren’t many children’s books about those subjects, so it would be interesting to see what children think about Mr. Clancy after reading the book. I would also like to see this book used in a classroom or school library to teach young children about Alzheimer’s and Dementia, but I also think many parents would find it useful to explain this difficult topic.

However, I don’t think it should be considered a book just for children. I found it to be so well written and meaningful that I would recommend it to anyone.  I am in my mid-twenties but it moved me to tears.  I cannot give enough praise to this author for her piece of work.  The whole story had the feel of truth.  I learned that the author’s grandfather had dementia, which motivated her to write the book.  My grandmother has dementia, so perhaps that is why I felt so connected to Mr. Clancy.
The story is heart touching and will leave an impression on readers. I thought that the characters were very well-developed and realistic. The writing style reminded me of Harper Lee’s in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I enjoyed the way Ms. Wiersbitzky added touches of humor to such a heart wrenching story. I could almost see the story unfold, so I would love for a movie adaptation to come from this novel. 

In short, I highly recommend What Flowers Remember!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nevermore: Roosevelts, Taft, China Dolls and Death, Snow, and Mistletoe

It may or may not have had something to do with the airing of the recent Ken Burns series on PBS, but this week’s Nevermore members brought in two books which featured members of the Roosevelt family. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit illuminates the turbulent times at the turn of the century when two close friends become heated rivals over the presidency of the United States.  Theodore Roosevelt was the young, charismatic, dynamic leader who took on special interests and looked to reform the nation.  He endorsed his friend William Howard Taft to succeed him as President, believing that Taft was a kindred spirit who would continue on the path Teddy had begun.  When Taft failed to live up to Roosevelt’s expectations, Teddy took it as not only a political but a personal affront.  One member described it as a book about “spectacular people who extended democracy in a new way.”  Goodwin has received much acclaim as an historian whose books have broad popular appeal in addition to solid scholarship.

The second book was a tie-in to the aforementioned series and has the same title: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.  The book follows the show in covering the roots of this fascinating family, including background on Theodore, his fifth cousin Franklin Delano, and Eleanor, wife to Franklin and niece to Theodore.  Our reviewer praised the books many illustrations, saying that there is much information to be gleaned from the photos alone but that the text is quite well done. The story begins with Theodore, who began life as a sickly child, and ends with Eleanor’s death in 1962.  The relationships between the principals and their circles are fascinating and will give readers an entirely new perspective on the family.

China Dolls by Lisa See is a novel set in the late 1930s, when three girls vie for a job as a showgirl at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco.  Although the girls are all of Asian descent, their backgrounds are very different.  Despite this, Grace, Ruby, and Helen become close friends. They rely on each other for their very survival.  Then Pearl Harbor happens, and Japanese are being rounded up for the internment camps.  Since few people know that Ruby isn’t Chinese but Japanese, her arrest means someone close to her has betrayed her. Lisa See is the author of the best-selling book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love.

Finally, there was Death, Snow, and Mistletoe by Valerie Malmont.  Tori Miracle moved to the little town of Lickin Creek, PA to be near her fiancé, who promptly took a job in Costa Rica.  Tori is waiting (mostly) patiently for his return while acting as temporary editor for the local paper, taking photos and writing about the Christmas pageant.  Then a child goes missing and a local resident is murdered, and Tori’s job becomes a lot more interesting—and maybe dangerous.  Our reader said this was a cut above many small town mysteries, with a good mix of humor and danger.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Death, Snow, and Mistletoe by Valerie Malmont

Reviewed by Jeanne

Christmas time’s a-comin’ to the little town of Lickin Creek, an Appalachian town in Pennsylvania and preparations are well under way.  There’s the usual arguing about the town decorations, the Christmas pageant, and who—or what—will stand in for baby Jesus in the living Nativity scene.  Tori Miracle, relative newcomer and editor/reporter/photographer of the local paper, is alternately exasperated and bemused by it all.  Then things suddenly take a turn for the worse:  a child goes missing and Tori is sure the witnesses aren’t telling all they know, and a citizen drops dead from cyanide poisoning.  With the chief of police (who is also Tori’s fiancé) out of town, Tori feels she needs to step up and step in.

I read a lot of cozy mysteries, the little paperbacks cats or pies or quilts on the cover.  Nowadays it seems every book has to have a “gimmick”:  the heroine has some sort of special hobby, a quirk, a love triangle, and/or the book has an exotic setting.  The books include recipes or craft patterns or sewing tips. Some aren’t bad, but most aren’t compelling, either.  It’s easy to read a few chapters and then wander off, picking the book back up a week later to see if I remember anything at all about it.  If I don’t, away it goes. If I at least remember the cat, I’ll persevere.   

I’m not sure it’s all the writer’s fault, either.    I’ve heard that in some cases, publishers approach writers to do a series and hand them a template (city girl moves to Wyoming to escape heartbreak, ends up with a herd of llamas, is attracted to the local fry cook, and they solve mysteries with the help of the ghost of a lost gold miner, treating the reader to tips on shearing camelids, short order recipes, and a dose of the supernatural.  I hope this is a totally made up example, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find there is such a series.) The writer is then expected to work within these parameters. It’s no wonder some of the books turn out to have a sort of assembly line feel to them. 

To return to the topic at hand, Death, Snow, and Mistletoe turned out to be a bit different.  Oh, sure, at first it seemed pretty standard;  but I found myself sneaking back to read just one more chapter when I really should have been doing something more productive, like trying to find my couch under all the mail.  There were some plot twists that took me totally by surprise, a good sense of place, and a lead character who can’t be reduced to a cliché even if she sounds like one: a former New Yorker who moved to Lickin Creek to be near her fiancé and who is making a niche for herself. She’s starting to learn a bit of the local customs, and can almost differentiate Amish from Mennonite.   She’s living in a drafty mansion rent free, but just keeping the place above freezing costs a fortune; the townsfolk regard her as an outsider; and of course, everyone knows more about running a newspaper. She has a TV psychic as a temporary houseguest,  a couple of cats, and wonders if her fiancé is really coming back or if he’s changed his mind about this whole wedding thing.  As I said, all pretty much standard for a cozy these days, but there’s a bit more subtly, more nuance, to this book.  Maybe it’s because this series began before the current formula became ingrained, giving the author more freedom to take the story and the characters where she wanted.

I began to understand why the folks on DorothyL, the mystery lover’s list, named Valerie Malmont as an author whose work they missed. Apparently, her publisher felt the books weren’t selling well enough and ended the series back in 2003; sadly,  Death, Snow, and Mistletoe was the next to last book.  

And yes, I’m going to read the others. In order they are:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nevermore: Wyatt Earp, Nathan Beford Forrest, King Edward VII, Kurt Vonnegut, and Brandon Sanderson

The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry is his first novel in five years.  The saloon of the title is owned by Virgil and Warren Earp.  Their brother, Wyatt, and his buddy Doc Holliday are on hand, having finished a brief stint in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  Other historical notables drop by, including Quannah Parker and Buffalo Bill, but the book reads more like a farce than a western.  Part of the plot involves an English lord who turns up with his mistress and entourage and teams up with Charlie Goodnight to start an enormous cattle ranch. Our reviewer said, “It’s funny but it’s not Lonesome Dove. I could imagine it as a Broadway musical.”  It’s a quick read, and it is recommended—just be aware this isn’t a book to judge by its cover.

Next up was a nonfiction book about the Civil War.  The River Was Dyed with Blood:  Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow was written by Brian Steel Wills, a former professor at the University of Virginia at Wise, and is teaching at Kennesaw State University.  Forrest was a self-made man, a self-taught commander, and a fascinating character.  This book focuses on the events at Fort Pillow, where Forrest’s troops killed most of the Union soldiers, including those attempting to surrender.  Our reader says that Forrest could easily be described as both a saint and a devil, depending on who was doing the describing.  The book is quite readable.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut was praised by our next reviewer who found it very interesting, especially if you like science fiction. A young man named Joshua decides he wants to write about the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  He decides to interview one of the scientists responsible, and his quest leads him to an island and a new religion which boasts that it is based on lies. This is considered one of Vonnegut’s best, a satirical, funny, and absurd look at religion, politics, and society.

The Heir Apparent:  A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley is, as the title indicates, a life of Britain’s King Edward VII, who began his rather short reign after the death of his mother Queen Victoria.  Our reader said it could have been subtitled “How NOT to Raise a Child.”  Bertie, as he was called, spent most of his adult life with very little to do, as his mother felt he was not mature enough to handle anything of importance.  That included anything to do with government duties. He ascended the throne at the age of 59 and reigned for less than a decade, but according to some he set the standard for the modern monarchy.  Of course, to many he’s primarily known for his womanizing, high living, gambling, and fashion. This biography is well done, being both enlightening and entertaining.

Finally, a new member is reading the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. Set in a world covered in ash, a tyrant has ruled for a thousand years.  He created a world with vast class divisions, from the nobility to the lowly skaa who serve as slaves.  As the series begins, a half-skaa Kelsior has survived the Dark Lord’s most brutal prison and is now scheming for a way to bring him down.  Our reviewer described it as an epic fantasy and a “keeper kind of a book.”  He hasn’t finished it yet but is finding it interesting so far. There are three books in the basic series but Sanderson has recently written a book set in the same world, but three hundred years later.