Thursday, September 30, 2010

If Trouble Don't Kill Me: Bluegrass, War and Remembrance

If Trouble Don’t Kill Me: A Family’s Story of Brotherhood, War and Bluegrass by Ralph Berrier, Jr. (782.421642 BER Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

"Oh, a book about a band."  That was the reaction I had when I offered this book to a co-worker.  At first glance, this book looks to be yet another tale of obscure bluegrass musicians. There have been a number of them lately as bluegrass becomes more widely known and accepted. Most are run of the mill, sincerely written books, even those about well-known musicians. They tend to be very earnest books which paint the past in sentimental, homespun terms in which times were hard but folks were all good, honest and hardworking.

This is not one of those books.

This is no rags to riches story, no angels with dirty faces tale. Twins Clayton and Saford Hall were two of ten children born to a never-wed mother; they never knew who their father was. Mamo never seemed to have much use for a man, though obviously she had had a certain number of dealings with them. They grew up in a holler, where people eked out a living with subsistence farming. Sometimes the younger children were chastised by older brothers not for playing hooky but for going to school when hands were needed in the field. It was a hard life, sometimes made harder by Saford’s penchant for mischief—or worse. Even as children, people tended to refer to the two as “Clayton and Satan.” This was a rough and tumble clan, and Berrier tells their story with humor, respect and a wonderful way with words that make one want to read sections aloud to other people. For example, he writes about Mamo:

“Mamo played banjo, too. She could do it all! Except find a suitable husband, perhaps.“ He goes on to note, “Banjos were better than husbands. True, both laid around the cabin all day, but a banjo never wore long legged britches that needed ironing. Plus, if you never liked what you heard from a banjo, a twist of a peg here, a tweak there, and you could make it say whatever you wanted.”

The “Big Bang of Country Music,” when Ralph Peer came to Bristol and made the recordings that changed popular music, had a ripple effect throughout the hills. Hillbilly music was suddenly all the rage and musicians from East Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and the surrounding area were taking center stage. Clayton and Saford Hall were among this group. Not only were they fine musicians and singers, but they had stage presence and an assortment of comedy routines. They opened for the Carter Family and the Sons of the Pioneers, they played the Grand Ole Opry, their songs were played on the radio—in short, the twins were well on their way into another world of rough-living and colorful characters but with a few more bright lights along the way.

December 7, 1941 changed all that. The boys were drafted and sent overseas.

What follows next is an account of the boys’ experiences in service, though Berrier says there are some incidents which can’t be verified: “Separating truth from myth is messy work. Tall tales and lies come as easy to country boys as howling does to a beagle.” The stories for the most part have the ring of truth: country boys suddenly shoehorned into unfamiliar circumstances, with strange rules and regulations, trying to understand foreign ways—and not just those of other nations.

If you have any interest in Appalachian culture, I highly recommend this book. Berrier has done a wonderful job of opening a door on the past and letting the readers experience a time, a place and a family. The writing is honest, peppered with quotable descriptions and phrases (Granny Hall is “as old as a Confederate veteran and no bigger than a bobwhite”) but it never becomes cutesy or overdone, and avoids the “faux hillbilly” cornpone trap. I laughed out loud several times, because some of the retelling reminded me of stories I’d heard told by older relatives. Some incidents are fairly grim; some are laugh or cry. People drink, cheat, love and sacrifice—in short, they’re very human. I appreciate too that Berrier makes it clear that the stories are family stories, subject to embellishment or the whims of memory.

Like the recent autobiography of Ralph Stanley (Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times by Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean, 781.642 STA), this is a book that deserves a wide and devoted readership.

(To read the review of the Ralph Stanley biography, click here.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mary Sutter, Civil War Nurse

My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira (F OLI Main; CD F OIL Main)

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

This is a debut novel that deserves attention.

Mary Sutter wanted to become a physician.On the eve of the Civil War, the idea was preposterous. Nursing had been revolutionized in Europe by Clara Barton, but only men could become doctors.

This is a tale of determination and Mary is a compelling character.Brilliant and headstrong, she is a skilled midwife, descended from several generations of midwives and very strong women. At the start of the Civil War, her fraternal twin sister has snagged the man that Mary is interested in. Refused by medical school and denied an apprenticeship by a local physician, at 20 she is too young to join the new nursing corp.

Set against the butchery of the Civil War, this story has an unexpected love story.There are three men who enter Mary's life, and unwittingly fall in love with her courage, will and stubbornness in the face of suffering. Dr. James Blevins, the young doctor who refused her apprenticeship. Thomas, her brother-in-law, widowed when Jenny, her sister died in childbirth. And William Stripp, an older physician who apprenticed Dr. Blevins and learned to depend on Mary, both emotionally and professionally, giving her a chance to become a surgeon in the battlefield hospital.

The characters are well fleshed out.Dr. Blevins is interested in research, determined to discover why infection and disease ravage the soldiers.Having forced Dr. Stripp to apprentice him by dissecting a dead cat on his desk, he becomes a hero but has secrets that keep him and Mary apart. Thomas Feld, Mary's brother-in-law, who realizes that he made a mistake in his marriage. Dr. William Stripp, who thought he could never love again.

There are wonderful depictions of historical people. President Lincoln, sharing his weariness of war and attempting to minimize the pain of the people around him and the nation. John Hay, his secretary, who respects Mary and gives her unknown help in her struggles. Another headstrong woman, Dorthea Dix, who established the need and the guidelines for an American nursing corp.

Make no mistake.This book is not for the faint of heart. The battle scenes and surgeries are realistic and graphic. Medical knowledge and hygiene were primitive at best, but the depiction is appropriate for this book.

This is rich historical fiction with a satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Caught is Captivating!

Reviewed by Doris

Caught by Harlan Coben (F COB Main; SSB F COB Main; and CD F COB Main)
Harlan Coben creates plots that twist, turn, take your around corners, and drop you on your head. His stories tend to dash along, pulling you head over heels with them and leaving you a bit breathless at the ending. Caught certainly lives up to that pattern.

Do you ever watch that MSNBC series where the sexual predators are caught when they respond to emails from what they believe are underage girls? Coben takes that premise and develops it into a story that grips you from the beginning. Haley McWaid is a great kid. She has a great family and parents who are involved and devoted. She disappears one night, and three months later no one still has a clue what happened to her. Wendy Tynes is the TV host of “Caught in the Act,” and she is driven to bring down the predators who feast on the kids in her community. Dan Mercer is a youth counselor who works with troubled kids, but he may not be the caring, outstanding citizen he seems. Is Dan connected to Haley somehow? Is Wendy doing the right thing setting up the predators and outing them to the public? What if she is wrong and the “predator” is really innocent? Coben puts all the possibilities into play, and you question every move made by every character.

Dan Mercer shows up at the house where Wendy and her film crew wait for him. There have been a series of emails to Wendy from an anonymous source accusing Dan of being a predator. When taken down by the police Dan says he came to the house to help a troubled young woman who approached him at the youth center where he counsels teens. He denies he has done anything wrong, but there is evidence to the contrary. Wendy has to go by the evidence as do the police, but Wendy’s gut is telling her something just doesn’t click. The more she investigates, the more she questions. Cyber sabotage, old grudges, new methods of tracking predators, a grieving father bent on “justice,” and threats on Wendy’s life and that of her son all factor in to the mix.

Harlan Coben is one of the best of the contemporary thriller authors at creating tension and Caught builds tension with each chapter. It will have you questioning everything. His characters are engaging—some good, some nasty—but all of them keep you tied in knots. Who are the good guys? Are the bad guys even scarier than you thought? Is there a conspiracy? Has Wendy brought a predator and possible murderer to justice or destroyed the life of a good man? You will not know until the very last page of the book, so don’t read ahead! This one is a winner—my favorite so far of the new books from late summer and early fall.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

After Olympus, It's The Red Pyramid!

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (J F RIO Main)
Reviewed by Susan

This book will be made into a movie. And if it follows the book, it will be a blockbuster.

Although it is listed in the juvenile collection, it is over 500 pages.It's a riveting story packed with adventure, humor and interesting characters. Riordan has recently completed the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, with the first book made into a movie. Each of the books in that series were entertaining and well written, but The Red Pyramid is by far the best. His writing has progressively improved, and I'm looking forward to the next book already.

This is book 1 of "The Kane Chronicles", but it could easily be a stand-alone novel with a satisfying conclusion on its own. Like the earlier series, it pulls heavily from ancient mythology, in this case Egyptian.

The protagonists include 12-year-old Sadie Kane and her 14-year-old brother Carter. Separated since their mother's death six years before, they are reunited on Christmas Eve for a rare visit. With little in common, including appearance - Carter is African American, while Sadie takes after their British mother. They accompany their Egyptologist father to the British Museum where he blows up the Rosetta Stone trying to summon an Egyptian god, unleashing a lot more than anyone bargained.

Totally unaware of this magical world, they escape, planning to save their father from his spell bound entrapment.  They discover their common heritage - they are descendants of the pharaohs and have magical powers of their own. An unknown secret order is determined to either control or destroy them. Meanwhile a vengeful god plans destruction and other mythical forces have their own plans.

Along the way, the siblings are both helped and hindered by Egyptian deities. Bastet, the cat goddess, has been sworn to their protection by their father. For many years, she has been Sadie's pet. Accidentally, they release her to her other form, an acrobatic woman defender who loves kibbles and cheese, and somehow always lands on her feet. But, she too, has a secret that slowly is revealed.

The narrative shifts between Sadie and Carter, keeping the story fresh with good natured kidding between brother and sister.It is a duel perspective that works well and would make a wonderful audio book. The imagery and the characters pull directly from Egyptian mythology, painting a complex background that displays a world that is both realistically fresh and educational (Don't tell the kids.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Photo Snap Shot: A Nifty Crafty Cozy

Photo Snap Shot: A Kiki Lowenstein Scrap-N-Craft Mystery by Joanna Campbell-Slan (F CAM Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Some would say Kiki Lowenstein has life easy. She lives in a nice house, drives a BMW, has her daughter Anya enrolled in an exclusive private school.

Once all of that would have been true, before Kiki’s husband George was murdered. Now it’s an illusion. The house is a rental; the BMW is old, and the school is courtesy of Kiki’s mother-in-law who extracts her pound of flesh in return. She has managed to find a part time job at a scrapbooking store but they’re living paycheck to paycheck. To make things worse, the only man Kiki’s attracted to is the police detective who investigated George’s murder. . . the very much married police detective. Kiki’s not that kind of a girl, especially since her husband played around. The only solution is to avoid Detective Detweiler.

Not to be flippant, but it’s indicative of the way that Kiki’s life is going that a teacher at Anya’s school is murdered and Anya and her friend may be witnesses. Not only might Anya’s life be in danger, but Detweiler is part of the investigation. He’s devoted to Anya, which is another thing Kiki loves about him, and she knows he’ll keep her informed. She just has to keep reminding herself that he’s taken already.

But Kiki is not the sort to sit around passively and wait to be rescued, especially when the safety of her only child is at stake. She’s going on the offensive.

It turns out there’s a lot to investigate. The dead teacher had quite a reputation and was apparently having an affair with another staff member – if not more than one. The secrets start to pile up, prejudices crop up in some unexpected places and soon Kiki herself may be in danger.

Kiki is a lively, likeable character facing some of the same problems many of us face: trying to make ends meet, struggling to raise a daughter, dealing with a mother-in-law who makes it obvious that Kiki is only tolerated because she’s Anya’s mother, and feeling as if she doesn’t fit in with the upper crust of St. Louis Society. The writing flows very naturally, especially Kiki’s commentary on life and events. Kiki has a sense of humor which stands her in good stead with all the insults, both great and small, that she endures. She’s very easy to relate to, what with her sullen co-worker and snobbish moms. Having once “had it all” so to speak, it’s hard for her to adjust to pinching pennies and going without. She’s tired of that, and hanging around with the privileged prep school moms grates on her nerves.

Besides, one of them might be a murderer.

The city of St. Louis was almost a character in itself. St. Louis is one of those cities that straddles North and South in personality, giving it a complex set of social rules. Campbell Slan’s explanations and descriptions are very helpful, giving me a clearer picture of the place. I was especially interested in the “Veiled Prophet.” I was pleased that the author provided some very useful notes at the end.

There are some "hobby mysteries" which are more hobby than mystery.  In other words, there are many pages devoted to a topic that may do littler to further the plot.  This isn't the case with this book.  If scrapbooking isn't your thing, don’t worry. I’ve only done a page or two and was unfamiliar with some techniques, but that didn’t slow the story down. There are tips for those who are scrappers, though, and they sounded very creative.

The book is very character driven, which is why I would recommend that this series be read in order. I was distracted occasionally by trying to understand something, such as the relationship with Detweiler or some parts of Kiki’s marriage to George, things that I'd have known had I read them in order. I’d recommend this series to someone who likes modern mysteries with a dose of humor but who doesn’t want pure slapstick or fluff.

The first two books are Paper, Scissors, Death (F CAM Main & Avoca) and Cut, Crop and Die (F CAM Main). Paper, Scissors, Death was a finalist for an Agatha Award.

Joanna Campbell Slan lived in St. Louis for several years before relocating to Virginia. She has written several nonfiction books on scrapbooking. Her work has also appeared in the best selling Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Roberts Rebounds: The Search

The Search by Nora Roberts (F ROB  Main & Avoca)
Reviewed by Doris

The last couple of Nora Roberts' romance novels have disappointed me. She has slipped into a pat formula format that has gotten predictable, boring, and stale. I did not really want to read The Search, but I knew I would review it for the blog so I took it home, mostly because there are dogs in the story. I am a total sucker for dogs.

Fiona Briscoe is like Césare Milan: she knows dogs. She trains them; she runs a search and rescue team. She has three wonderful labs, Peck, Bogart, and Newman. She lives on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington, and she has a past that has taken a long time to overcome. At the age of twenty when she was a college track athlete, she was kidnapped by a serial killer who had already killed twelve women. By her strength, cunning, and some luck, Fee manages to escape. The serial killer is eventually caught but not before he kills Fiona’s fiancé—a K9 officer—and his dog as punishment for Fee’s escape. Building on her love for dogs, the things she learned about handling them from her fiancé, and much hard work, Fee has found peace and built a good life on her island sanctuary. Then one fine day while she is running a training exercise for her search and rescue team, Simon Doyle shows up with his puppy so aptly named Jaws. Cranky and at his wit’s end with the rambunctious pup who has almost destroyed his house, Simon demands Fee’s help. Drawn to the irascible, sexy man (and the adorable puppy), Fee takes on training both the owner and the pup.

Soon the peace of her island and the inner peace she has fought so hard to achieve is shattered when a copy cat begins to kill young women exactly as did the killer from whom Fee escaped. From his prison Fee’s tormentor has found a disciple and set him on a path to kill the only woman who escaped. Terrified that the killer will not only come for her but for all she loves, Fiona Briscoe does not run. With Simon’s help and that of her dogs and other friends, she sets out to take down a murderer.

I liked Fiona Briscoe very much. Of course she fits the formula of the heroine—smart, beautiful, capable, a little afraid of commitment. I found Fiona to have dimensions beyond what usually turns up in a Roberts’ romance. I liked her approach to the dogs (she gives some great training tips). I like how she chose to rebuild her life by doing something as remarkable as search and rescue with her boys (the dogs), and I liked her prickly relationship with Simon and how that pulls her in falling in love again.

I also liked Simon. While he is handsome, sexy, and brilliantly talented, he is also cranky, fussy, ridiculously private, and exasperated with people most of the time. He keeps telling Fee she is not his type and he has no intention of getting involved. He is fully aware that Fiona is training him as much as she is training his pup, but somehow he finds that endearing instead of off-putting. His developing relationships with Fee and with his wild puppy are touching and humorous. In the end, he demands to be the hero, but Fee stands up to him and right beside him. Along with the boys, they make an appealing and lasting team.

The serial killer story is one that has been done a bunch. While there is still a lot of the Roberts formula in this book, the romance is very sweet and fun. The secondary characters, including Fee’s team mates, her stepmother, and her best friend Mai, are colorful and entertaining. The banter at which Roberts excels brightens the book and characters. And, of course, the dogs are just perfect!

Note: The puppy pictured above was at a local animal shelter. Looking for a new friend?  Our local animal shelters have all breeds, colors and ages of dogs, cats, puppies and kittens.  Go to and enter in a zip code to find adoptable pets in our area.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Can ANYONE come to bookclub? Can a Pawn Come to Bookclub?

Good question!

Find the answer by clicking here!

The Nevermore Bookclub meets Tuesdays at 11:30 am. You never know just who might show up. . . . and did we mention doughnuts from Blackbird Bakery?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beyond Left Behind: Luke's Story

Luke’s Story: By Faith Alone by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (F LAH Main & Avoca; SSB F LAH Main)
Reviewed by Susan

If you like stories in Bible School, then this book is for you. Third of the “Jesus Chronicles,” it re-constructs Luke’s life from childhood up to his old age. Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins authored the wildly popular “Left Behind” series. They are trying to hit another one out of the ballpark with mixed results. So far, they’ve done Mark’s Story (super-good) and John’s Story (not their best). Luke’s Story makes you nod your head, thinking, “Yeah. It could have been this way.”

Curious. Compassionate. Luke helps another slave in a serious accident, saving his life. This draws the attention of their kindly owner, Theophilius. I had to smile when Theophilius realizes Luke has potential and asks him what field he likes best, and Luke replies, “The bean field.” Working with the family’s physician, Luke is groomed until a plague hits. So many slaves die, including the physician and Luke’s parents. Luke is given more and more tasks, with the plan of eventually sending him to a university to study medicine.

It is there that he meets Saul (Paul), another first year student. Saul, being Saul, is hard to get along with. Saul whips up a marathon race and sweet-talks other first year students to join. Several do, but only Luke & Saul finish, walking across the line together. Foreshadowing.

They become friends. Sort of. Saul admits that when they are older, with his Jewish and Pharisee connections, they will not be able to continue as friends. Luke, of course, feels used, but they kind of work it out.

Fast forward. Luke goes on to become a physician. He hears tales about a murdered Judean carpenter who preached a philosophy heretical to Judaism. Saul went on to root out these heretics until he is converted and becomes a faithful believer. They eventually meet and Saul converts Luke, who diligently studies these new teachings. He has dialogues with Paul and an elderly Mary. Visiting Paul in a Roman prison, Paul predicts that Luke will write the Acts of the Apostles.

LaHaye weaves a pretty good story. He fills it in with things that could have happened, making Luke and Saul multi-dimensional. Where it bogs down is that there is a lot of reproduction of Luke’s Gospel. Also, it’s unlikely that Saul would have been schooled anywhere other than in Judea under a Pharisee rabbi.

So, enjoy it but remember to give it plenty of literary license.