Monday, August 3, 2015

The Cat Sitter’s Whiskers by Blaize and John Clement





Reviewed by Jeanne

Dixie Hemingway—no relation to you-know-who—gave up her job in law enforcement after a family tragedy and now earns her living as a pet sitter on Siesta Key, Florida.  The problem is that while Dixie is no longer with the police, crime still has a way of finding her.  This time, she’s taking care of a mischievous Maine Coon cat named Barney Feldman but it certainly wasn’t Barney who conked Dixie on the head when she came to the house. Dixie reports the incident as a break-in, but nothing seems to have been taken even though the house has a lot of expensive items, including a valuable collection of antique masks.  The police think that perhaps Dixie passed out and hit her head.  

The only one witness was Barney Feldman.  And Barney isn’t talking.

For those unfamiliar with the series, the Cat Sitter books are an interesting blend of cozy with grit. On the one hand, there can some messy deaths but there’s no wallowing in graphic detail.  Dixie does tend to rush in where angels fear to tread at times, but she’s also a strong character who has had some training in dealing with emergencies, making her interventions more plausible.  She may have been broken a bit by fate, but she’s working her way back.  The pet sitter angle is well done; Dixie tosses out a pet care tip or two and obviously cares about the animals but maintains a business like attitude. 

This is the tenth book in the Cat Sitter series, but only the third for John Clement who took over writing up Dixie’s adventures after his mother Blaize passed away.  I had enjoyed the previous two but had a vague feeling that something was missing.  All the familiar characters were there, all the expected trimmings, but somehow it felt a bit by the numbers.   This time, however, I think John really found Dixie’s voice all the way through

Part of the appeal of almost any series, mystery or not, is finding out what’s going on with the characters’ personal lives. Recently, Dixie embarked on a new romance but still carries some heavy personal baggage.  Some of the reoccurring characters are fleshed out a bit more this time, and Clement creates some memorable new ones. The animals shine with their own personalities, which is part of the appeal for me.    The primary mystery plot was a bit slow building as Dixie found herself a bit sidetracked by her personal life, but there were a couple of particularly nice twists this time around which made it all worth the wait.  Some I saw coming, some I didn’t.  

I usually advise people to start with the first of any series, and while I would suggest that you do so with this one as well but I don’t think folks would have any trouble just diving in with this one.  If you haven’t read any of Dixie’s adventures recently, then I think you’ll find yourself right at home.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Help by Kathryn Stockett








Reviewed by Ambrea

The Help recounts the stories of Aibileen and Minny, a pair of black maids who have spent their lives cleaning the homes and raising the children of white women, and Skeeter, a recent college graduate who’s still trying to find her purpose and herself.  Together, they collect their stories and their experiences and, with the help of others, pen a novel about what it’s like to live and work in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962.

I have one word for The Help:  exquisite.

Not only has Kathryn Stockett managed to create a fabulous novel packed with richly depicted characters that I adored, she tells an intricate and thought-provoking story that kept me glued to the pages.  Quite frankly, The Help was an addictive piece of work for me.  I had the hardest time putting it aside once I turned the first page; moreover, I don’t think I even put it down after I started learning Aibileen’s and Minny’s stories.  (I’m pretty sure I was reading until four a.m.)

Besides being an absolute joy to read, The Help is a well-written piece of literature that brings together dialect, speech patterns, and personal memories to create singularly unique characters.  Stockett makes it easy to dive right into the lives of Minny, Skeeter, and Aibileen.  They’re wonderful characters with thoughts, dreams, and aspirations of their own that make them real and strikingly human.  Their stories flow so easily, their memories weaving a beautiful tapestry about three women and their struggles within southern society.  It’s an emotional roller coaster ride; however, it’s truly thrilling to experience.

I will note that The Help is envisioned in conjunction with the civil rights movement.  It portrays the lives of three women in Jackson, Mississippi, when expectations for women, especially African American women, were very different.  As such, Stockett’s novel often portrays some of the worst aspects of racism and sexism—and the abject unfairness that such extraordinary women are faced with such terribly prejudiced circumstances.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Nevermore: Broadchurch, Sociopath, First Ladies, Appalachian Railroads, Spool of Blue Thread, 4th of July Creek



Reported by Candess and Ambrea

This week in Nevermore, members explored a variety of books, including Broadchurch by Erin Kelly and Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas.


Broadchurch was first on the roster.  Based on the 2013 television series of the same name, Broadchurch follows the story of Ellie Miller as she investigations the murder of an eleven-year-old boy found on the beach, the son of one of her dearest friends.  Between dealing with the buried secrets of her small Dorset town and the sudden appearance of a disreputable Scottish detective, Alec Hardy, Ellie deals with her own sense of loss and struggles to discover the murder before it’s too late.  Our Nevermore reader considered it “very good,” engrossing and intriguing like the television show.


Likewise, our other Nevermore reader found Confessions of a Sociopath:  A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight to be an interesting journey.  Part memoir and part psychological exploration, M.E. Thomas’s novel details how the author deals with her disability and, more importantly, thrives despite it.  Our Nevermore reader called it, “Very interesting” - and worth reading if one is interested in uncovering the characteristics of a sociopath.


Another book our Nevermore reader read was First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the lives of 45 Iconic Women by Susan Swain (and C-SPAN).  Based on a series of episodes by C-SPAN in which preeminent historians and biographers discussed the lives of the presidential first ladies, First Ladies  dives deeper into the world of the president’s wives - their dreams, deeds, aspirations, and efforts - and exploring these “fascinating women who survived the scrutiny of the White House, sometimes at great personal cost, while supporting their families and famous husbands - and sometimes changing history.”  Nevermore readers gave it a very positive review, saying it was definitely worth reading, especially if one enjoys history.

Conquering the Appalachians by Mary Hattan Bogart followed next.  Bogart’s book chronicled the construction of the Western Maryland Railway and the Clinchfield Railroad as it went over, around, and even through the Appalachian Mountains.  Based on the journals, records, and photographs of William Cary Hattan, the civil engineer who built large portions of these railroads, Conquering the Appalachians is an up-close and personal look at the individuals who built these railroads and the impact they had on the regiion.  According to our Nevermore reader, “We should never discard these books!  Put them in the young adult section so that our young people have an idea of the history of the railroads and what it meant to our county!”


Last but not least, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler was discussed.  According to our Nevermore reader, it was absolutely wonderful.  Following the lives of the Whitshanks, all four generations of them, A Spool of Blue Thread chronicles family life - the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the secrets and the shared memories - at its worst and at its best.


One of our Nevermore mentioned 4th of July Creek by Smith Hendrson, in which social worker Pete Snow becomes involved in the case of an eleven-year-old boy, nearly feral from neglect, and his survivalist father, and called it an interesting read.  Although still working on reading this book, our reader received great praise from a family member who claimed, “There is an astounding, life-changing ending” to uncover.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Code Grey by Clea Simon




Reviewed by Jeanne

It’s spring break, though it’s a bit hard to believe with the chill in the air.  With Dulcie’s boyfriend Chris away visiting his mother, it seems a perfect time for Dulcie to put in some serious work on her dissertation.  Some have begun to wonder if she’s become so attached to her subject that she actually doesn’t want to finish it, which Dulcie finds to be nonsense.  She’s ready to make progress just to prove them all wrong.  Then parts of the library are closed due to water issues, and former student Jeremy Mumbleigh is found injured, clutching a rare library book under his coat.  Even though Jeremy is homeless and battling mental health issues, Dulcie can’t believe that he would steal from the library he loves.  So where did he get the book?  And more importantly, were his injuries due to an accident—or was he attacked?  Jeremy is in no condition to answer, so Dulcie recruits Mr. Griddlehaus, her librarian friend, to help find the answers before someone else is hurt.

The Dulcie Schwartz mysteries are perfect for those who love a good academic mystery.  Simon’s vivid descriptions almost make the college and its environs into characters themselves.  Dulcie’s long term (long, long, long term!) dissertation deals with the unknown author of eighteenth century Gothic romances, so the themes of literature and history loom large.  Code Grey in particular is a love song to those who treasure the physical book.  Part of the story deals with the history of publishing, the value of manuscript, and novels that are much more than they seem.  There’s a reverence that will warm the heart of any bibliophile, those who appreciate the physicality of a book: feeling the story flow almost through one’s fingers as the pages turn, appreciating the appearance of the fonts, the margins, the texture of the paper.  It was easy for me to feel a kinship to Dulcie, Jeremy, and the others who appreciate books as valuable physical objects—like gold or jewels-- in their own right. Just ask anyone standing in line at Trinity College, hoping for a glimpse of The Book of Kells.

Of course, no Dulcie tale would be complete without the cats. Esme is ever the willful young diva; she's perfected the feline version of a flounce.  The departed Mr. Grey still manages to dispense love and wisdom (sometimes couched in  enigmatic expressions) to his favorite human kitten.   Dulcie’s delightfully ditsy mother calls with difficult to interpret warnings from the psychic world. (“Ditsy” is not exactly the right word, but I do love alliteration in moderation.) Simon indulges in some wordplay as well, but let me hasten to add on a much more sophisticated level. For example, the passages from the Unknown Author’s work are affectionate satires of the classic gothic genre while reflecting Dulcie’s psyche. However, the supernatural elements are more for atmosphere than intervention:  the mysteries are solved through human means.  

For fans of the series, we learn much more about Mr. Griddlehaus’ background. The librarian has played an increasingly large role the books and this time out he actively helps Dulcie investigate.  He finally comes into his own as a fully fleshed out character, one it’s a pleasure to get to know better. 

If you’re looking for blood ‘n’ gore or car chases, look elsewhere.  But if you want to feel as if you’re walking the halls of the Milhorn Library or grab a bean burger at Lala’s while trying to sift through clues, then prepare yourself for a real treat. You may want to have a hot beverage at hand against the chilly Cambridge winds and don’t be surprised if you fancy you hear a wolf howl or see some fog drifting in.

Full disclosure:  I was sent an advance copy of the book for review, but this did not influence my opinion any more than does my love of literary felines.

BeeGee appears smitten by the cover's kitten.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck





Reviewed by Ambrea

Simply put, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family and their desperate flight to California in the midst of the Dust Bowl.  After being forced off their land by the owner, who sold his land to the bank, who in turn sold it to a corporation—and so on and so forth—the Joads are making their way to the west coast in the hopes of a better life.

Although the novel is primarily concerned with the Joad family and their flight across the country, several chapters—I have heard them called “bridge chapters”—describe the overall experience of the families forced to flee their homes after the Great Depression began.  These “bridge chapters” not only connect the Joad family to the larger, collective experiences of these migrant people, they also introduce the reader to a more intimate portrait of suffering, terror, and desperation these people felt and experienced.

When I began reading The Grapes of Wrath, it captured my attention for one simple reason:  it kept me on the edge of my seat.  I was constantly wondering if the family would make it to California, if they would endure—if they would ever survive the journey.  On some level, this book made me wonder if happily-ever-after even exists.  It depicts some of the worst human behavior, some of the worst human suffering as people try to survive and make a better life for themselves.

Honestly, Steinbeck’s novel broke my heart—and then it came back to stomp it in the dirt.  As Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to his publisher, “I am not writing a satisfying story.  I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.  And still one more thing—I’ve tried to write this book the way lives are lived not the way books are written.”

And Steinbeck succeeds brilliantly.

The story of the Joad family occurs during a particularly chaotic time in American history.  It’s a decade when stock markets plunged and banks went under; when dust choked nearly half the country; when war—or an eviction notice—constantly loomed on the horizon, like the dust storms of Oklahoma and Arkansas; when economic hardship became the norm and exploitation of the poor, weak, and desperate happened regularly.

In The Grapes of Wrath, people suffer.  They’re treated as less than human—and may even become less than human through the fear and loathing of others, through their own tired desperation—and they die.  In short, Steinbeck succeeded in writing a book that will “rip a reader’s nerves to rags,” but he also succeeded in creating a hallmark piece of American literature that’s sure to rattle readers and make us think.