Friday, January 20, 2017

Time’s Up by Janey Mack

Reviewed by Kristin
Move over Stephanie Plum, there’s a fresh new character in town and she’s got a ticket to write.
Maisie McGrane is from a large Irish family full of Chicago cops.  All her life she has planned to join their ranks, but suddenly she learns that she has failed the psych exam for having an overwhelming need to be liked, and thus will be summarily dismissed from the police academy.  Maisie’s first thought is that this can’t be happening.  All the McGranes are either cops or lawyers.  So what’s next for Maisie?
Appeal the academy’s decision?
Apply to law school?
Become a meter maid?
Soon, Maisie has put on the neon green vest and hit the streets.  Training with Traffic Enforcement Agent Letitia Jackson, Maisie encounters the disgruntled public who are just as likely to throw rotten milkshakes on her head as to beg for mercy when she is about to place an AutoCITE ticket on their windshield.  Being a meter maid is not for the thin-skinned.  No matter what that psych exam said, Maisie is determined to succeed.  Dealing with high level Chicago political intrigue, Maisie manages to navigate her way through the streets of the city in a 3-wheeled “Interceptor” cart issuing tickets and putting the boot on vehicles with multiple violations.
Full of strong and sometimes zany characters, this promising new series has more than a few similarities to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books.  First off, Maisie has taken on a new job for which she is not exactly suited.  Her family is tight knit and definitely in Maisie’s business, like it or not.  Sidekick/supervisor Letitia is overflowing with personality and surely would be stopping at Cluck-in-a-Bucket if only she were in Trenton instead of Chicago.  A bit of a love triangle is set up in this first book of the series as well, although Maisie seems to favor the mysterious bad/good guy Hank Bannon rather than the family approved cop Lee Sharpe.
This first installment in the series has begun with a bang and seems to promise even more depth and development in future publications.  Next in the series are Choked Up and Shoot ‘em Up.  I recommend Time’s Up enthusiastically, and look forward to getting to know Maisie, her family, her co-workers, and her love interest(s) as the series continues.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nevermore: Yann Martel, Frank Delaney, Rebecca Kauffman, Tracy Chevalier, Margaret Atwood

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore had some great books to share, including one reader’s favorite book:  The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel.  Martel, author of The Life of Pi, creates a moving epic in his latest novel, which follows the lives of a young man on a mission to redefine history, a Portuguese pathologist, and a Canadian senator returning to his ancestral home.  It begins in Lisbon in 1904 with a journal and a dream, before culminating in a century-long quest that leads readers in an unexpected direction.  Our reader said she absolutely loved this book.  She said, “[It has] parts to make you laugh; parts to make you cry.”  It has everything for readers, she continued, and it has an underlying theology—a universal idea of God—that she found fascinating.  Our reader, who admitted she read The High Mountains of Portugal four times, always found new things to appreciate and enjoy each time she read it.  She highly recommended it to our other Nevermore members.

Next, Nevermore looked at Tipperary by Frank Delaney.  Charles O’Brien is a healer, a traveling doctor who ventures all along the countryside and beyond to dispense traditional cures and help heal a variety of ailments, maladies, and wounds; however, he becomes an unlikely storyteller when he unwittingly soaks up the tales of his homeland.  Then, at forty, when he is summoned to Paris to treat one of his dying countrymen—Oscar Wilde, no less—he falls in love with April Burke, who doesn’t return his affection.  Determined to win her over, Charles sets out to preserve Tipperary, an abandoned estate in Ireland, and win April’s favor.  Our reader, who enjoyed reading Delaney’s Ireland, said she was a little disappointed with Tipperary.  Charles is an excellent storyteller, but, when other narratives were sewn into the story, our reader pointed out that she didn’t like the anonymity given to other characters.  It made Tipperary challenging, because she was never sure whose narrative she was reading, and, ultimately, unrewarding.

In Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman, Nevermore was introduced to Tracy, a woman who aspires to something greater than her work as a restaurant hostess in Buffalo, New York.  However, rather than following Tracy as she works to cultivate her creative talents, Kauffman looks to the peripheral characters—people who have known Tracy, people whose lives intersect hers—and interweaves their stories to create a fascinating narrative tapestry of lives, hopes, dreams, and experiences.  Although our reader said Tracy was a memorable heroine, both dynamic and fascinating, she thought Kauffman’s novel was a little bland.  She found Another Place You’ve Never Been just didn’t stir as much of an emotional response for her and she didn’t really recommend it to her fellow Nevermore readers.

Nevermore also shared Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and At the Edge of the Orchard.  On the coast of England, Mary Anning discovers a series of unusual fossils buried in the cliffs near her home and sets tongues to wagging.  Not only do the townspeople have something new about which to gossip, the scientific community is absolutely voracious to learn more about these fossils—even if they are set to disregard Mary entirely.  But Mary gains an unlikely friend and champion in Elizabeth Philpot, a spinster who shares her passion for scouring beaches and has her own fascination with fossils.  Our reader enjoyed reading Chevalier’s novel, saying it was a fascinating look at women and their impact on early scientific discoveries.  Moreover, she said, “The characters are great; the scenes are great.”  She appreciated Chevalier’s eye for detail and her ability to make sifting through sand in search of fossils a fascinating experience.

Next, Nevermore visited another reader favorite:  Moral Disorder, a series of eleven stories by Margaret Atwood that follows the life of one remarkable young girl as she traverses her childhood in the 1930s and beyond.  According to the jacket cover, “Each story focuses on the ways relationships transform a life:  a woman’s complex love for a married man, the grief upon the death of parents and the joy with the birth of children, and the realization of what growing old with someone you love really means.”  It’s a fascinating, funny but poignant collection of stories that our reader termed as “wonderful.”   Our reader is a big fan of Atwood—and Moral Disorder is one of her favorites.  She enjoys it each and every time she reads it, because she likes the complexity of the characters, including the narrator, and the subtle traces of humor and humanity throughout it.

Last, but not least, Nevermore took another look at Margaret Atwood’s work with her latest novel, Hag-Seed.  A reimagining of William Shakespeare’s Tempest, Hag-Seed is a curious novel that follows the rise and fall of Felix, a former Artistic Director for the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, as he puts on the finest show of his life—and plots revenge against those who betrayed him.  Our reader said she really liked Atwood’s novel, noting that it read like a mystery story and a very good one at that.  Our reader also took a special interest in Atwood’s bibliography, which listed many of the books and movies and plays watched by the author in preparation for Hag-Seed.  As the latest installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, Hag-Seed joins The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson, and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Unsinkable: A Memoir by Debbie Reynolds

Reviewed by Christy

            Debbie Reynolds would’ve been the first to tell you that she had terrible taste in men. But that is truly an understatement. Reynolds’ first marriage was to Eddie Fisher who famously left her for their friend Elizabeth Taylor. Her second marriage was to a millionaire named Harry Karl. That marriage lasted for over a decade before Reynolds discovered that Karl was a gambling addict who had blown through his fortune and hers. She was left completely broke and spent years paying off the debts. She vowed to never marry again.

            Unsinkable begins where her autobiography, written in the 1980s, left off: with the marriage to her third husband, Richard Hamlett. Against her better judgment, she accepted his marriage proposal after a year together. The couple went on to buy a hotel with the hopes of creating a museum inside to display Reynolds’ beloved costumes and props collection. The museum never materialized, and Hamlett did his best to drain more money out of Reynolds in the process – all while throwing money at various girlfriends. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Reynolds and her rotten luck with men. But I can’t help but wonder how a woman in her then-50s could so easily fall for a man’s shallow charm – especially a woman like Debbie Reynolds who had dealt with her fair share of snake oil salesmen in the romance department. (Her daughter, Carrie, would later incredulously joke that Eddie was “the good one”.) But, ultimately, I think Reynolds just had a dangerous mix of naiveté and optimism.

            She also discusses, sometimes with too much detail, her attempts to finally create that memorabilia museum she so desperately wanted. I was surprised to discover that she came incredibly close to creating a museum in nearby Pigeon Forge. It was fun to read Reynolds’ thoughts on the little tourist town (“a wonderful community”; “the people there couldn’t have been nicer”) and her excitement at being so close to Dollywood.  Deals were made, and a building was even built but unfortunately the Great Recession ruined those plans as well. Reynolds eventually decided to sell off most of her collection and use the money to retire in comfort. It was a difficult decision because she loved every item but she was getting older and though she loved to perform, the physical toll was getting worse.

           Reynolds also discusses her children, Carrie and Todd Fisher. At times she was a surprisingly lax mom, not blinking an eye when sixteen year old Todd brought a woman in her late twenties to the family hotel suite. The woman stayed for several days. But Reynolds loved her children deeply and made sure they knew that. Some of the passages are a little heartbreaking to read now that both Reynolds and Carrie Fisher have passed on. She talks about her agony as a mother of someone with a drug addiction and mental illness. She often worried if Carrie would make it. She states that she doesn’t think she could survive outliving her children. It was quite touching, although very sad, to read.

            Despite some of the hotel minutiae, I quite enjoyed reading this. It was a quick read that covered the gamut of emotions – I laughed, and I cried. She also briefly discussed her experiences on each of her films which I particularly liked. I thought it would be a little more comprehensive but I didn’t realize she wrote a more traditional biography many years ago. Reynolds’ humor and personality shine through, and I look forward to reading her other books.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Reviewed by Ambrea

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson retells one of Shakespeare’s classic plays, The Winter’s Tale, and transports readers from the mythical coast of Bohemia to the sprawling modern metropolis of London.  The year is 2008, Leo and his beloved wife, Hermione (MiMi), are happily married and set to welcome their new baby into the world—except Leo isn’t so happy, and he doesn’t believe this baby belongs to him.  In fact, he’s dead set against raising a child that he believes belongs to his traitorous best friend.

Meanwhile, after the dust settles and Leo’s duplicity tears apart his life, Shep and his son, Clo, discover a tiny baby named Perdita left out in the rain.  Making a spur-of-the-moment decision, Shep decides to adopt her into the family—and his choice will forever change the course of their lives as young Perdita grows and learns of her startlingly tragic heritage.

The Gap of Time was an intriguing novel.  Part tragedy, part redemption, The Gap of Time does a fair job of transporting Shakespeare’s play to the modern era.  It conveys all the conflict, all the tragedy and love and joy and hurt of The Winter’s Tale, but it also gives his iconic characters a little more color, a little more depth, which I enjoyed.  And, speaking of characters, I really want to mention Shep.

Aside from Autolycus, who is basically a crooked car salesman with a heart of gold, Shep is probably my favorite character.  He has this gentle, genuine quality to him that I appreciated the more I got to know him (and other characters), and he has such a wonderful narrative.  For instance, in the first chapter (if it can be called a chapter), Shep details the tragedies that have beset him and he tells readers how he happened across Perdita.  Yes, I found his thoughts were rather tangled up with the past, caught up in the regrets that plague him and the memories that haven’t quite settled; however, his narrative is heavy with emotion and purpose.  It has a lyrical quality to it that makes his words sound absolutely beautiful.

I loved the way he describes his first encounter with Perdita, how he describes his out of body experience of finding the baby and knowing, just knowing she was in his life for good:  “I realise without realising that I’ve got the tyre lever in my hand.  I move without moving to prise open the hatch.  It is easy.  I lift out the baby and she’s as light as a star.”

Or when Shep decided, in one moment the importance of this child in his life—and recognized the impact of important moments:
“The cars come and the cars go between me and my crossing the street.  The anonymous always-in-motion world.  The baby and I stand still, and it’s as if she knows that a choice has to be made. 
“Or does it?  The important things happen by chance.  Only the rest gets planned. 
“I walked round the block thinking I’d think about it, but my legs were heading home, and sometimes you have to accept that your heart knows what to do.”

His lines are, by far, the best found in the book.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Leo, Perdita’s biological father.  Personally, I hated—yes, hated—Leo.  Leo never seems to understand what he did wrong.  I mean, sure he’s remorseful for his actions after they destroy the lives of so many (his wife, his daughter, his best friend, his son, and his own), but, even after the nuclear fallout has settled, he doesn’t quite seem to grasp that his actions—his jealousy, his vindictive attitude, his sense of superiority, his abject cruelty—is what drove everyone he loved away and resulted in so many heavy casualties.

At the end, he’s not the lion of a man he was at one time; however, he doesn’t seem to have learned much of anything either.  Maybe, I don’t understand his humor (his racist/anti-semitic playfulness that Pauline merely ignores or his complicated almost cruel relationship with Xeno); maybe, I don’t understand him, period.  Either way, I feel like Leo just didn’t develop as a character and he didn’t learn from his mistakes.  He was too stubborn to accept Perdita as his daughter, too jealous to accept that his wife wasn’t sleeping with his best friend, and simply too cruel.  I mean, he doesn’t even bother to contact his wife—the woman he supposedly loves beyond comprehension—after their world is torn asunder and he doesn’t bother to seek out his daughter, if he ever even accepts that she’s his.

I much preferred Shep.  Like Leo, Shep is grieving and hurt by the “anonymous always-in-motion world,” but he doesn’t let it hollow him out, turn him into a raving madman or a violent, vindictive father.  He lets Perdita into his life, unlike Leo, and he lets love back into his life.  He doesn’t cast it aside, and he doesn’t try to ruin lives because he’s hurt.  He makes an effort to change his life; he makes an effort to be kind.  I can’t help thinking Perdita got a much better deal when she wound up in his care.

Additionally, I feel like I should point out that I didn’t really understand The Gap of Time.  It just didn’t strike the right note with me, so to speak, and it didn’t appeal to me on an emotional level, because I didn’t understand the characters—that is, I couldn’t connect with them.  Much of Winterson’s novel is told in this odd, almost meandering verse that is part omniscient, omnipresent narration and part stream-of-consciousness monologuing.

It actually reminded me a lot of The Sound in the Fury, in that I didn’t quite understand it either.  Not only does it hopscotch through time, it utilizes a style of writing that makes it difficult to read.  It feels scattered, unhinged, especially when Leo is involved.  I couldn’t stand when Leo was involved, I couldn’t stand his jealous rantings or his madman-like ravings.  It made the story difficult to stomach and altogether too brutal.

Overall, I had a hard time understanding and connecting to Winterson’s novel.  It made me squirm, but it didn’t make me think.  It made me feel sympathy for Perdita, for Hermione (MiMi) and their shared plight, but it didn’t make me feel sorry that Perdita was ripped from her home and given a parent who loved her with the unbounded, unconditional love that a parent feels for their offspring.

It made me feel revulsion, but it didn’t make me feel joy, which I found very disappointing.

(Note:  This is another of the Hogarth Shakespeare books which has contemporary authors re-imagining the plays.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Nevermore: How to Be Black, Stuff WhitePeople Like, Do No Harm, Ghost Army, The Lottery, The Comfort of Strangers

Our first reader was quite enthusiastic about How to be Black by Baratunde Thurston because of the way the book treats serious subjects with humor.  Chapters include “How to be the Black Employee,” “How Black Are You?’ and “Being Black at Harvard.”  He also assembled a panel of mostly black people to answer questions such as “When did you realize you are black?” (There is one white panelist, by the way.) 

She also recommended Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Taste of Millions. The list included coffee (preferably fair trade, organic, or both), foreign films, and religions their parents don’t belong to.  Our reviewer thought it was laugh out loud funny.

Switching gears to a wholly serious topic, the next book was Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Dr. Henry Marsh, an English neurosurgeon. Our reviewer praised Dr. Marsh for his candor about his mistakes and for remembering he was human, not a god. She found the British perspective to be very refreshing.  It was an easy read overall, but some sections were very moving.  She found the section about surgery in Ukraine to be very much an eye-opener.

Ghost Army of World War II by Rich Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles sheds light on a little known aspect of World War II:  a group of soldiers whose job it was to convince the German army that there were weapons and encampments in areas where there were none.  They achieved this with sound effects, inflatable tanks, and a lot of paint.  The men were artists, designers, sound engineers, and generally creative types with the imagination to pull off such an operation.  As might be expected, the book is heavily illustrated and includes drawings by some of the soldiers—Bill Blass, Art Kane, Arthur Singers, and others who would later gain fame in some aspect of the arts. Our readers said it was a fabulous book, both interesting and involving.

The graphic novel version of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” made quite an impression on our next reviewer.  He was unfamiliar with the story, but found the art was quite mysterious and set the mood perfectly.  Miles Hyman, the artist and adaptor of the story, is a grandson of Ms. Jackson. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: The Authorized Graphic Novel comes highly recommended by Nevermore.

Finally, The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan is the story of a young English couple who are on holiday when they meet an older man who seems to take an interest in them.  He also has some rather odd stories to tell. . . This is one of McEwan’s earlier efforts—just his second novel, in fact.   Our reviewer described the book as powerful, intense, and dark.  He also noted that the title is quite ironic.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by Jeanne

The subtitle to this book is “A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds,” and that does give the reader a hint about this story.  It’s a bit hard to categorize, but the same could be said of much of Gaiman’s work. It began life as a story to be read aloud at a festival at the Sydney Opera House, complete with art and music; won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette as text, and now is a book with many and various pictures: paintings, collage, cartoon boxes with dialog, a bit of everything—pictures of all kinds, indeed. There is also much darkness of all sorts.

The story is told in first person by a diminutive Scotsman who has spent a decade searching for a man by the name of Calum MacInnes.  As the story opens, he is asking MacInnes to be his guide to a certain cave in the Misty Isles, a legendary cave, which is said to contain gold. . . and something else. Both men are wary, especially MacInnes, but the desire to obtain a goal is stronger than any doubts and they set off on a perilous journey.

Gaiman has the knack of writing in such a way that you feel you’re reading an ancient story, one passed down through generations.  There’s also the sense that you’re not getting the full unvarnished story.  Things are held back and left unsaid.  It’s up to the reader to piece it all together.  There’s a definite layer of darkness all through the tale along with vivid descriptions of the winds and cold and the wild terrain that made me want to put on a jacket or at least turn up my collar. The writing itself is beautiful and evocative—nobody spins a tale quite like Gaiman—and the ending took my breath away. I didn’t like this book, I thought. 

And yet I go back to it again and again, reading passages to see how he shaped the story, and understanding the main character more and more. I can’t help but wonder, though, if I would have seen it differently without the illustrations.  I almost think I would have appreciated it more because I would have internalized and admired the words more from the start. And yet certain of the illustrations speak very strongly and deeply. The cover is absolutely perfect. 

This is a story to raise the hair on your neck, to make you weep, and to make you empathize. It’s one of those rare tales that will walk beside you in the dark but not menace you.  It’s a deeply human tale, told by a master.