Friday, April 20, 2018

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

Reviewed by Kristin

New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson delivers an origin story worthy of a superhero, as well as a tiny bundle of cells rapidly dividing and multiplying in an epic quest to become that most miraculous of beings: a new human.

Leia Birch Briggs is a graphic novel artist who had a huge success with Violence in Violet, or V in V, a comic which grew out of sketches she began two decades ago.  At first a minor work, V in V exploded in popularity when Leia uploaded a few pages onto her website.  Suddenly a bit of a rock star in the comic world, Leia is offered a deal to write a prequel.  She is struggling to write her character’s beginnings when she has a one night stand at a Comic Con with Batman; or that is, someone cosplaying Batman.

What better than an unplanned pregnancy to throw a knot into the somewhat structured life of a 38-year-old self-employed artist?  And just to add another facet to the situation, Leia is white and Batman is black.

Leia is also blindsided by a call home to Alabama to help Birchie, her grandmother who has suddenly shown signs of dementia—unfortunately in full view of half the town in church one Sunday morning.  In fact, Leia’s phone is blowing up with messages and calls before the pews have emptied.  Birchie needs care, more than her comparably aged African American maid/friend/companion Wattie can provide.

As Leia attempts to care for her grandmother and decide if she will reach out to her Caped Crusader, old bones and racial differences in the Deep South emerge in a way that will change her life and the lives of her family forever.

What I love about Joshilyn Jackson’s books is that they are full of imperfect people who usually manage to find some measure of redemption and grace.  Her characters feel very real: so much like someone who we might know at church, at work, down at the corner market, or maybe even a little closer to home.  Sometimes Jackson’s stories make wild twists and turns but I love being along for the ride.

Jackson puts her heart and soul into each novel she publishes.  The Almost Sisters is even closer to her family than most of the others.  She is a Southerner (with a capital S) through and through, and explores the meaning of family in every thread of her writing.  For a special peek into what Jackson has shared with her readers, check out this article in the Atlanta JournalConstitution.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Nevermore: River Town, Girl on the Velvet Swing, Nightblind, Dead Woman Walking, Please Look After Mom, Little Sister Death

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore started with River Town:  Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, the first in a trilogy of books on China.  In 1996, Hessler arrived in Fuling, a small town on the Yangtze River of China, as a Peace Corps volunteer.  He quickly found himself teaching English and American literature at the local college, immersed in a country that was radically different than the American one he’d always known.  Our reader said she enjoyed reading Hessler’s book.  Although it is a deeply personal memoir, it’s also an interesting look at China.  It offered intriguing insight into the world of the Sichuan countryside, providing an in-depth look at the culture, language, and history of China’s small towns.  Overall, she highly recommended it to her fellow readers.

Next, Nevermore checked out The Girl on the Velvet Swing:  Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Simon Baatz, which tells the story of Evelyn Nesbit and the sensational courtroom drama that engulfed her life.  In 1901, when Evelyn was only sixteen years old, she was assaulted by Stanford White, a forty-seven year old man who was considered one of the foremost architects of his day and designed countless landmark buildings in Manhattan.  Five years later, Evelyn confided in Harry Thaw, a millionaire playboy who would later become her husband, of the crime; in response, Thaw shot and killed White during a performance at Madison Square Garden.  The following trial was sensational, shocking, and explicit, diving into the glamour and excess of early twentieth century New York.  Although our reader hadn’t quite finished reading The Girl on the Velvet Swing, he said he found the book to be fascinating overall.  “I was less than impressed with the first one hundred pages,” he admitted, “but it’s getting better with the second hundred pages.”

Switching gears from murder trials to murder mysteries, Nevermore looked at Nightblind, a novel the Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jonasson.  Ari Thor Arason is a local policeman with a tumultuous past and an uneasy relationsip with the villagers of Siglufjordur; however, when a killer murders a policeman one night in a deserted house, it’s up to Ari Thor to solve the murder as the dark arctic winter begins to fall.  Our reader had previously enjoyed Snowblind and she was excited to read more of Jonasson’s novels.  She said she enjoyed Nightblind immensely.  Although it’s a small book, she noted that “it’s still very good and [it has] no wasted pages.”  She was thrilled by all the unexpected twists and turns, and she was even more impressed by how Jonasson managed to keep the identity of the killer a secret until the very end.

Next, staying in the vein of thrillers, Nevermore shared Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton.  Set in England, near the Scottish border, Dead Woman Walking shares the suspenseful story of woman who survives a freak hot-air balloon accident only to witness a brutal murder—and become the killer’s next target.  Our reader, who has read other novels by Bolton, said she absolutely loved reading Dead Woman Walking.  Paced well, written well with a surprise on every other page, Bolton’s novel is a gripping story that our reader admitted she “couldn’t put down until 2 o’clock in the morning.”  Overall, she said it was very good, and she highly recommended it to her fellow mystery lovers.

Nevermore also looked at Please Look After Mom, a novel by Kyung-Sook Shin.  When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband in a crowded subway station in Seoul, her family initiates a desperate search to find her.  According to the book jacket, Please Look After Mom is “[told] through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother...[and] is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.”  Our reader admitted she had checked out Shin’s novel in the past, but she was very glad she had the opportunity to read it again.  Emotional and evocative, Please Look After Mom is a heart-wrenching and fascinating story of family struggles and the power of love.  Our reader highly recommended it, saying “it’s very beautiful.”

Last, Nevermore shared a novel by Tennessee author William Gay:  Little Sister Death.  David Binder is a young, successful writer in Chicago, but he’s suffering writing block—until inspiration reminds him of an old ghost story that fascinated him as a child.  Now, with his pregnant wife and daughter in tow, David sets out to explore the old Beale farm and delve into the myth of Virginia Beale, Faery Queen of the Haunted Dell.  But as David looks deeper into the violence and bloodshed that lingers at Beale Farm, he quickly learns that something else casts its shadow over the old farm.  Our reader said Gay’s novel was absolutely amazing.  Well written and finely paced with suspense, Little Sister Death is truly scary horror novel.  “It was so terrifying it kept me awake,” she said to her fellow Nevermore members, but she highly recommended it for the wonderful writing and the truly haunting story it tells.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

Reviewed by Christy H.

            Priyanka is a first generation Indian American girl living with her single mother. Though Priyanka (who routinely asks to be called Pri) is a typical American teen she also dreams of one day visiting her mother’s homeland of India. She wants to know all about it, as well as her father, but Pri’s mom refuses to discuss Pri’s father or anything relating to India. 

Pri is on the verge of giving up when she stumbles across an old suitcase tucked away in a closet. Inside is a pashmina that Pri has never seen before. When she wraps it around herself she is immediately transported to the colorful and stunning land of India. She tries new foods she’s never heard of (as well as old favorites like her beloved samosas) and dresses in vibrant saris that make her feel beautiful. All the while a shadow lurks in the background. When Pri catches glimpses of it and questions her guides (a talking elephant and blue bird), they chase away the shadow and refuse to provide any answers. This convinces Pri that she must travel to India for real to better understand her heritage, her mother, and herself.

Pashmina is a delightful and heart-warming graphic novel. Chanani’s art is very charming, adorable, and though I do not read graphic novels extensively it is one of the best of the ones I have read. Her decision to switch to color during the imagined India sections gives it an extra punch as well. Though anyone can relate to Pri’s bumpy school life and her tension with her mother, it’s nice to get a different perspective within these common themes. I really loved this little book and its advocating for discovering oneself and choosing one’s own destiny.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Persian Always Meows Twice by Eileen Watkins

Reviewed by Jeanne

Cassie McGlone is a relative newcomer to Chadwick, New Jersey, but she thinks it will be a good place to start business as a cat groomer.  Not much competition for one thing; and she has found a good, affordable location.  She even has a high paying client in George DeLeuw who wants the best for his Persian, Harpo, and who even has a professional grade grooming studio set up in his house.

Arriving for her regular appointment, Cassie is shocked to see Harpo outside and unattended. That shock is nothing compared to what awaits her when she gets Harpo back into the house:  DeLeuw is dead. As sorry as she is about her human client, Cassie’s main concern is what is going to happen to Harpo. She’s afraid he’ll end up abandoned or euthanized, so she volunteers to board him until the estate is settled—but that may wait until the murderer is found.

I read a lot of cat-centric mysteries, enough so that I tend to start new series with lowered expectations.  I was pleasantly surprised by this one: cats are important to the storyline without being able to pontificate on the human condition or find clues.  Cassie is a solid heroine who, in my view, has a reasonably good head on her shoulders.  She’s also seeking to escape some things in her past that may yet come back to create trouble.  She has a strained relationship with her mother, partly out of grief after her father’s passing. The rest of the supporting characters were adequate; this is a first in series book, after all, and there are characters to be introduced.

The plot was interesting and while a clue or two was not followed up with alacrity, it was all still entertaining.  My favorite part is the way cat information was handled; I never felt I was being lectured to and yet I had a strong feeling that the writer knows her subject. (With some authors, I have had my doubts.) On the other hand, there’s not so much information non-cat aficionados would get bogged down but would be able to enjoy the mystery on its own merits.

The second book in the series,  The Bengal Identity, just came out in March.  It's on my list to read soon!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Nevermore: White Tiger, Books, Book of Joy, Quality of Mercy, Hutterites, 9th Hour, Uncommon Type

Reported by Kristin

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga has been shared by several Nevermore members. Balram Halwai is a lower caste man in India who has high ambitions for himself and his family.  His goal of becoming a rich businessman has many bumps along the way and the underlying political unrest in the country makes it even more difficult for him.  Our reader said that it was truly a struggle between the dark (where Halwai came from) and the light (who Halwai wanted to become) and that she absolutely loved it and placed it in her top five favorite novels.

A large and impressive looking book for bibliophiles, Remarkable Books: The World’s Most Beautiful and Historic Works, produced by Dorling Kindersley (DK) was much admired by this group of book lovers.  The reader who had it in hand said that it provided a pure history of books and went into great detail on such things as how the earliest scrolls were made and preserved.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu provided much encouragement to our next reader.  She noted that the friendship shown between the two men was inspirational, and she especially enjoyed how mischievous and humorous they were together.  Our reader’s takeaway was that she was reminded to think about all the things for which she is grateful, and to make a list of those things at the end of each day.

Next up was The Quality of Mercy by Katayoun Medhat.  Franz Kafka (‘K’) is a very smart small town cop in the American southwest with a sharp sense of humor.  A sudden death on the reservation alarms the community and K must work with Navajo police officer Robbie Begay.  Beautifully written, the novel was given rave reviews and immediately snapped up by another reader.

Tom Hanks is not just an actor; among many other things, he’s also a collector of typewriters and the author of a short story collection:  Uncommon Type.  Our reader enjoyed Hanks’ foray into the printed word, and said that some of the stories will really grab you and some will make you say, “Is that really the end??”

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott was praised by our next reader as a story about hope, even as the book begins with an Irish immigrant’s suicide in the early twentieth century.  In the aftermath of this family tragedy, his pregnant widow must go on and raise her child and find hope.  Our reader said that she found much in the novel about charity, giving, optimism, and what good things can come out of a really bad situation.

Finally, another reader enjoyed I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage by Mary-Ann Kirkby.  The author’s family left the insular religious group in Canada when she was ten years old.  Adjusting to the outside world in 1969 was difficult, as she had known no other life.  Kirkby eventually chose to re-examine and embrace her beginnings as part of exploring herself.  Our reader was fascinated by the descriptions of work sharing and cooperation within the Hutterite community.