Saturday, July 30, 2011

I Still Dream About You

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

I never tire of Fannie Flagg. She has a wonderful sense of humor that looks at the quirky side of life. Her books are full of southern wisdom and laugh-out-loud humor. My first memories of her were on the “Candid Camera” TV show. She started writing for TV at 19, in fact, wrote and directed her first play in the 5th grade. She is a born storyteller and a bestselling author.

In I Still Dream About You, Maggie Fortenberry decides to commit suicide, but keeps getting interrupted. First a friend wants her to go with her to see the Whirling Dervishes. Then other obligations and friends keep messing up her plans. A former Miss Alabama, now 60 and a realtor, she has 16 perfectly good reasons to commit suicide. Business has also gone from bad to worse. Her arch-rival, Babs Bingington, is an unscrupulous real estate agent determined to put Maggie out of business. Known as “The Beast of Birmingham”, Babs had a death hold on the best real estate locations and absolutely hates Maggie. When an enchanting property become available in “the perfect” location in Birmingham, they go head to head.

There is a colorful cast of characters such as Hazel Whisenknott, a 3 foot, 4 inch real estate dynamo and Betty Peoples, Maggie’s best friend with her out-of-left-field ideas and a handy emergency stash of chocolate. There are entertaining subplots – a friend runs a unique race for the mayor’s position. There is a murder mystery when a mysterious skeleton is found, along with a trunk full of letters locked away in the attic.

Maggie finds that everyone and everyplace have secrets, not just herself. Secrets that make life interesting and entertaining.

Fannie Flagg can handle weighty subjects with a light touch and wit that that keeps you smiling.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Raven Report for July 26, 2011

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind lingers on, and not just in the movies! It was the topic of a lively discussion at this week’s Nevermore Book Club.  The question was, “Why is Scarlett such an icon?” The answers were varied, but included the idea that in some ways she could be considered a feminist because she “acted like a man” and went after the things she wanted.  The question of how race was handled in the novel was also discussed.

All Things Shining:  Reading the Western Classics by Hubert Dreyfus wonders about the best way to find the sacred in a secular world is. As religion becomes less an element of our society, can Great Literature answer our search for meaning in our lives?

Next up was Smokin’ Seventeen by Janet Evanovich.  The question there was, has Stephanie “jumped the shark”?  Has the series lost its spunk? Opinions differed, with a plug for Evanovich’s  Wicked Appetites, which is a sister series to the Plum saga, as being funnier than the current Stephanie novel.

Quinn by Iris Johansen is the second book of a three book trilogy which is supposed to clear up one of the long-running mysteries of the Eve Duncan series.  Eve is a forensic artist with the uncanny ability to sculpt a victim’s likeness from skeletal remains.  Her passion for her work is due in part to her young daughter’s disappearance years ago.  The first book was entitled Eve; the last book, out in November, will be Bonnie.

Sixkill  is the new Spencer book, the last one completed by Robert B. Parker before his untimely demise.  Perhaps fittingly, a new character is introduced, Zebulon Sixkill, whom other characters keep comparing to Spencer and who seems destined to continue in the books.  In some ways it seems to be a passing of the torch, which is a propos, given that Ace Atkins had been hired by Parker’s estate to continue the Spencer series.

Daniel Silva was named as a writer to watch.  His Gabriel Allon thrillers are fast paced, topical and very well written.  Silva himself is a former journalist and knows the places about which he writers.  The first in the series is The Kill Artist.  His most recent is Portrait of a Spy.

Last but not least, the discussion turned to George R.R. Martin, a long time author whose books have gained new fans after the premiere of a  TV program based on his “Game of Thrones” series.  Martin has just released the next book in the series, A Dance With Dragons.  Martin is also known for his Wild Cards series as well as some wonderful stand alone books such as the space adventure Tuf Voyaging, the vampre tale  Fevre Dream (and yes, it is Fevre and not Fever) , and Armageddon Rag, a murder mystery with fantasy and rock and roll elements.

As you can see, the Nevermore Book Club ranges far and wide!  If you’d like to join us, just be at the Frances Kegley Conference Room on a Tuesday at 11 am.  Coffee is provided and the doughnuts are from the fabulous Blackbird Bakery!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Anteater of Death by Betty Webb

Reviewed by Jeanne

Zookeeper Theodora “Teddy” Bentley is devoted to her charges and loves her job.  When a body is discovered in the enclosure for Lucy, the pregnant giant anteater, it appears that Lucy and the zoo may be in jeopardy.  For one thing, even though the autopsy proves that Lucy clawed the man after he was dead, the anteater is now seen as a vicious animal who needs to be confined to a box or else sent away. For another, the deceased was on the zoo’s Board of Directors.  It doesn’t help that Joe Rojas, the investigating sheriff, was Teddy’s first love and that the dead man is a member of Teddy’s extended family.

This is the first in a new series for Webb, best known for her gritty mysteries starring private investigator Lena Jones (Desert Noir, Desert Shadows, etc.) The set up is especially intriguing for animal lovers, because Teddy’s job brings her into contact with all sort of exotic (and not so exotic) species with tidbits of information about each thrown in as Teddy makes her rounds.  Webb is careful to convey that the job isn’t glamorous: there’s a lot of hard work involving cleaning excrement, avoiding being nipped or clawed or bitten, and trying to educate a public that all too often believes the Disney version of wildlife. In one instance, a woman endangers her child by dangling him inside an animal’s enclosure.  Sound farfetched?  Not two days after I read the book, a co-worker encountered a group of people who were trying to get photos with bears.  Yes, real, not caged, free-roaming black bears—and a mother with cubs to boot.  They even tried to follow the bears into the woods.    I also liked the fact that many of the animals Teddy works with are not the apex exhibits (elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas) but animals that are less flashy but no less interesting such as the capybaras.

 Teddy’s family is also rather exotic: her mother was a member of a wealthy family, but Teddy’s rapscallion father managed to run through most of the money in various schemes that has him on the run from the law.  Teddy knows her share of wealthy and influential people, which causes some to assume that she is just playing at work.  In reality, she’s living on a houseboat because she can’t afford anything else in the upscale community, and is barely making ends meet on her zoo salary. She’s also recovering from a nasty divorce and determined not to leap back into the arms of Joe when both of them are so vulnerable.  However, the character relationships don’t turn into soap operas, and the murder remains a high priority.
Teddy herself is an appealing heroine, a girl who knows her way around society while preferring the company of Regular Joes and Janes.  She knows and appreciates the value of wealth—all the good things that money can buy—but she prefers to earn it herself. Her strong sense of integrity also endeared her to me as well as her love for animals.

There’s a good amount of humor in the book, though it’s not slapstick.  The pacing is good and the characters are well-developed for the most part, the exception being a sexist man on the make who uses his position of power to prey on women.  Teddy’s mother, for example, is forever trying to get Teddy to dress up and find a wealthy husband yet Caro turns out to have her own hidden passions. The mystery was well done with real clues among the red herrings.

In short, I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading the next in the series, The Koala of Death!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Raven Report: July 19

The Nevermore Book Club readers were consuming more fiction this week, including:

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel in nine years, tells the story of Harrison William Shepherd. The son of a Mexican mother and an American father, Harrison grows up in 1930s Mexico. He lives with the artist Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo before moving to Asheville, NC where he becomes a writer. The book is a sharply observed chronicle of the ear from the 30s through the McCarthy trials of the 50s.

Then We Came to the End is the award-winning debut novel of Joshua Ferris. The employees of a Chicago ad agency are facing downsizing as some of their number are laid off. The satirical book evokes the dot com crashes of the 90s, Dilbert, and “The Office.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is the story about slavery in the South. First published in 1852, it’s one of the few books that can claim to have jump-started a social revolution and a civil war. Many people read it only as a high school requirement and never look at it again; others never read it at all, yet its influence still exists today.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was written a century later but it too has wielded a powerful influence over the collective imagination. In many ways, the two books parallel one another: each presents a strong viewpoint about conditions in a particular region and time period, and probably more people know the characters than have actually read the book.

Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown is the story of three sisters who have gone wildly separate ways but who reunite when their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. Raised in a household with a college professor father fond of quoting Shakespeare, the sisters have to redefine themselves and each other in order to move on with their lives. Funny, moving and ultimately uplifting, this is a delightful summer read.


Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter: A Memoir by Barbara Robinette Moss is the one nonfiction title this time. It’s the heart-wrenching true story of a young girl growing up in a very dysfunctional family. It’s been compared to Angela’s Ashes and Glass Castle. Our reviewer said, “You will never take anything for granted again.”

The Nevermore Book Club meets every Tuesday from 11:00 am until noon.  Everyone is welcome!  Doughnuts are courtesy of the Blackbird Bakery.  Join us!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Books in Brief: Three Bags Full

I belong to DorothyL, a mystery listserv where folks discuss, among other things, mystery novels.  Recently some have read Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, a sheep mystery.  I'm not kidding.  The sheep try to solve the mystery.  Of course, they don't quite understand the mystery--they're sheep, after all, and therein lies the delight.  Their shepherd has met with foul play and they really aren't sure what will become of them but he was a rather nice shepherd who read aloud to the sheep, which is why they had some grasp of human doings.  One sheep, the cleverest, was Miss Maple and while there was an explanation of how she got her name (involving syrup) I am fairly sure the resemblance to Miss Marple was not unintentional.  My favorite sheep was Mopple the Whale, who was very large and while he was not terribly bright, he never forgot anything.  He reminded me of someone.  I can't think who.
Mopple, er, Melon waiting for a story.  Or a snack.  Preferably both.
 The book is clever and very well written.  Even more astonishingly, this sheepish story set in the hills of Ireland was written by a German. True, she was studying English literature at the time, but still it's pretty amazing.  She's done a sequel in which the sheep get to travel to France.  Alas, it hasn't been translated into English yet.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Embrace the Grim Reaper by Judy Clemens

Reviewed by Jeanne
Casey Maldonado was the only survivor in a horrific wreck which killed her husband and son.  Wracked with grief and survivor’s guilt, she wanders the country alone, on the run from her past.  Well, not quite alone:  Death wanders with her.  Death refuses to take her, but seems intrigued or at least bemused by her journey.  Casey ends up in a small town with a grief of its own: the largest employer in town is shutting down, and a beloved citizen has committed suicide.  Or did she? At Death’s urging, Casey begins to investigate and soon finds there may be much more to this “suicide” than meets the eye. 
This book reminded me of all these old TV shows I used to watch in which the hero moved from town to town, met a host of interesting people, solved a problem and moved on:  Paladin, Then Came Bronson, or even The Littlest Hobo.  (Anyone remember that one?)  Anyway, the closest series would probably be Kung Fu, given Casey’s expertise in martial arts.  Clemens does a good job of doling out information about Casey’s past in small doses, making us eager for more, which also moving the current storyline along.  Casey is a sympathetic heroine, one traumatized by her accident but still a strong and determined personality.  She’s nearly fearless—in her view, she doesn’t have anything left to lose—but she isn’t stupid.   She’s also resourceful and compassionate. She’s an excellent character on which to build a series.  
Naturally, the series hook is Death.  He’s undescribed for the most part, and the only people who can see Death are those who don’t fear him.  He isn’t all-knowing and while he’s there at the moment a person passes he doesn’t know anything about the circumstances so he can’t solve the mystery for Casey.  Reviewer Cynthia Noyes points out that Death’s passivity is one reason the character is so intriguing: exactly what is his nature?  He says he’s following Casey because he’s interested in her journey.  He goads her into doing things, though there are times she disregards his suggestions without dire consequences.  Some things he suggests seem to be for his own amusement, such as going home with that handsome young man who manages the soup kitchen, so it doesn’t seem that Death has a specific agenda… at least not one we’re privy to at this point.
This is the first in the series and it is a promising start.  The weakest part for me is the reason Casey is on the run.  It’s something to do with the CEO of Pegasus Motors, maker of the car which exploded and killed the family, who is determined to track Casey down.  There has been a settlement, giving Casey ample funds to travel; she occasionally calls her brother or her attorney, but wants to avoid the CEO at all costs.  While this supplies a good deal of tension in the book—Casey definitely gives the impression she’s being hunted down as if she were a criminal—the explanation for why she’s being chased is rather murky. This quibble is rectified in the next book, I gather, and she has more compelling reason to be on the run.  It’s not a gloom and doom series, nor is it all metaphysical sweetness and light.  Instead it’s a solid mystery with just a hint of the paranormal. 
(If you want to read Cynthia Noyes’ review, check it out at

Update:  I’ve now read  The Grim Reaper’s Dance, second in Clemens’ Grim Reaper series.  The story picks up shortly after the first book ends, with Casey hitching rides with truckers to move across the country.  Her latest ride is with Evan, a nice guy who wants to talk about his family.  He’s looking forward to taking some time off to spend with his girls.  He doesn’t get the chance: the truck crashes into a road block and Evan is mortally injured.  Before he dies, he tells Casey the location where he’s hidden some papers, asking her not to let THEM have the papers.
It soon becomes apparent that the people he’s referring to are the ones who set up the roadblock in the first place, desperate men with secrets to hide.  Unfortunately, the papers Evan left don’t really explain what’s going on, so it’s up to Casey to figure out the scam and to identify the people behind it before anyone else gets hurt.  Casey, for example.
Again, Casey meets an interesting array of characters who, while not fully developed, are generally likable or at least basically decent (except for the bad guys, of course).  Since the cast changes every book, there’s not going to be a lot of character development there.  What is developing and changing a bit is the relationship between Casey and Death.  That’s the series “hook,” and a good one it is.  This time Death is apparently on a music kick, and uses every opportunity to sing, pluck, drum or at least hum various tunes.  Clemens leaves the door open so that if you choose to think Death is real, you have ample evidence; but if you prefer to see the character as a subconscious manifestation of Casey’s grief, you can.  The interplay between these two is entertaining and in some ways, thought-provoking in a “Death Takes a Holiday” sort of way. Casey’s reasons for being on the run are pretty much ignored in this book; the reader is just expected to go along with her need to hide out.  I found that this actually worked better for me than reasons I found a bit too vague in the first book; it left me free to concentrate on the mystery at hand. The episodic nature of the books also makes it easy to start this series at any point.
I’ve enjoyed both, and will be looking forward to the next book in the series.  Flowers for Her Grave is due out later this year.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Raven Report for July 12

Members of the Nevermore Book Club are reading all sorts of books this summer!  First up was Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, a fictionalized account of her grandmother's life.  If you want to understand the dysfunctional family from Walls' best-selling memoir The Glass Castle, by all means read Half Broke Horses.  Both books are unforgettable.

The Mullah's Storm  by Thomas W. Young is a thriller, set in Afghanistan. A plane transporting a radical mullah is forced down in the mountains during a winter storm.  Major Parson and Master Sergeant Gold must try to get their prison to a Special Unit team stationed nearby, but the Taliban are closing in.  Even though this is fiction, the details about the terrain and military operations ring true:  the author served in the Air National Guard in Afghanistan and has written several non-fiction books about the military.  This debut novel is getting rave reviews, including one from our book club reader!

Tom Clancy's Dead or Alive is a return to form for the best-selling author.  Fans will be glad to know that both Jack Ryan and his son, Jack Ryan, Jr. appear in this book, but you don't have to have read previous books to enjoy this one. Jack Jr. and his team are searching for the terrorist mastermind who has carried out successful attacks again the U.S. and its allies.  Clancy's co-author, Grant Blackwood,  has worked with another industry giant, Clive Cussler, and is a navy veteran to boot.  The expertise shows in this fast-paced thriller.

Hope Ladley travels from farm to farm, cooking for the men who come to help with the harvest in Forevermore by Cathy Marie Hake.  When Hope arrives at Jakob Staufer's farm, she finds a family in turmoil over the loss of Jakob's wife and their baby.  Jakob's remaining child, Emmy Lou, is suffering from night terrors after falling down a well and his sister in law is being abused by her husband.  Will Hope's sunny disposition and strong faith be enough to help this family heal?  This sweet and refreshing romance is just the thing for a summer afternoon!

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard by C. Alan Bradley (F BRA Main & Avoca)

Reviewed by Jeanne

If you’ve already encountered the precocious Flavia de Luce, eleven year old chemist and sleuth, then it’s quite possible that just knowing there’s a new adventure has sent you to the shelves in search of this book. If you haven’t encountered Flavia before, then you’re in for a treat indeed.

As the book opens, Flavia is attending the village fete and having her fortune told by an old gypsy. When some of the predictions hit very close to home, Flavia panics and bolts the tent. Unfortunately, in so doing she turns over a candle and sets the whole tent aflame. Flavia does the only thing she can do in such a circumstance: she pretends she had nothing to do with the whole incident.

Anyone who had two sisters as positively beastly as Feely and Daffy would be tempted to do the same thing. They would never let Flavia hear the end of it if they have any idea she’s responsible. Besides, they would tell Father who might forbid Flavia from going to her beloved lab and conducting experiments. Better not to risk it.

Still, Flavia does feel rather badly about the whole episode, especially since the poor old gypsy doesn’t seem to have very much in the way of worldly goods. She offers the gypsy a place to park her wagon in near the family home as a way of apology. This good deed doesn’t go unpunished: when Flavia goes to visit her, she finds the old woman has been bludgeoned nearly to death.

Needless to say, Flavia is on the case at once and soon finds herself embroiled in a morass of motives from a stolen baby to copied antiques.

I’ve found all of Flavia’s adventures to be utterly delightful. The writing is sharp and peppered with entertaining references, the characters are enjoyable and the mystery is a true puzzle. Don’t be put off by the idea of a child sleuth: Flavia is an unforgettable heroine. If you like to read in order, I’ll list all the titles below but you don’t need to have read the others to enjoy this one.

1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
3. A Red Herring Without Mustard

If you’re already a Flavia fan, you’ll enjoy this adventure. The good news is that the fourth Flavia book is scheduled for November 2011. The title is I Am Half Sick of Shadows. At one point, Bradley indicated there would be only five Flavia books. Here’s hoping he’ll reconsider!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Susan's Raven Report, July 5, 2011

Susan attended the post-Independence Day Nevermore Book Club. Here are some of the books discussed:

The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic by Barbara Gannon

Truly a band of brothers. For every generation, the sacrifices and horrors of war create a special bond between veterans. After the Civil War, the largest Union Veteran’s group was the “Grand Army of the Republic” (GAR). Within that group were African American veterans along with their white counter-parts. This thoroughly researched book looks at the nation’s first interracial organization and the comradely that made it possible.

I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg
A fun whimsical story set in Alabama by the indefatigable Fannie Flagg. Maggie Fortenberry, an aging former Miss Alabama keeps getting interrupted while planning her suicide. She has sixteen “perfectly good reasons to jump in the river” and only two reasons not to. Of course, hope is found – professionally and personally along with the excitement of solving a mystery.

The Beatles: the Biography by Bob Spitz
One moment in time, the music for a generation was defined by a band from England. Their story, from humble beginnings to the band’s final days is presented in this well researched biography. It humanizes the band and is written with a flair that lets the facts and characters speak for themselves. Their music created a new era in rock that sparked a cultural revolution.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Books in Brief: Bone Idle

Reviewed by Jeanne

In A Load of Old Bones by Suzette Hill we were introduced to the Rev. Francis Oughterard, a somewhat nervous vicar who wants nothing more than to live a peaceful life punctuated with good brandy, chocolates and a piano on which to bang out some tunes. This idyllic state of affairs is interrupted when Francis somewhat accidentally murders a particularly annoying parishioner and must try to conceal his involvement.  He's aided, unbeknownst to him, by the two pets he more or less inherited:  Bouncer the ever eager mutt who, as his name suggests, bounds about life with enthusiasm; and Maurice, the cat who fancies himself a sophisticate. Both see that they have a vested interest in keeping the vicar out of jail, else their food supply might be cut off or at least made less agreeable.

The series continued with Bones in the Belfry, in which Francis had to hide a bunch of stolen paintings or else his alibi might evaporate-- or at least be sent to prison.

I've just finished Bone Idle,  in which Francis is once again under suspicion, asked to commit a burglary, and is a party to fraud-- in other words, things are as usual in Molehill.  If you like madcap, silly humor and are willing to suspend disbelief, this might be a good choice.  I enjoyed it, though I think this one was a bit too over the top even for me in places.  My favorite remains Bones in the Belfry, but I'll be looking forward to the next in the series. There are at least two, Bones in High Places and the newly published Bedlam of Bones which some reviewers have described as the last of the series. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Famous (and not so famous) Last Words

Famous last words, fond farewells, deathbed diatribes, and exclamations upon expiration compiled by Ray Robinson (082 FAM  Main)

Reviewed by Nancy

Well, this is just so interesting. This is what I say to myself so often when I find myself reading odd books. I must admit, I just love odd books. There was the book about being in jail, the book about sociopaths, the book about how people behave in crises, the books about UFOs, the book about... well, never mind. Anyway, this is a fun little book, and, yes, it's rather peculiar. Compiled by Ray Robinson, Famous Last Words gives us just that: deathbed utterances of some famous and some not so famous people.

In the introduction Mr. Robinson explains how it was that he came to be a collector of deathbed pronouncements, and how this preoccupation eventually resulted in the publication of his book.

Famous Last Words is quite readable, and chock full of interesting tidbits. For example, Mata Hari, the Dutch woman convicted of spying for Germany before the First World War, refused a blindfold and blew the firing squad a kiss just before she was executed. What she said before she died did not impress me much, but I think that kiss blowing is really something. If I were facing a firing squad would I be cheeky enough to blow anybody a kiss? I am happy to say we might never find out. If you ever hear that I am to be executed for something, please stop by for the execution. I will try to think of something entertaining to say or do.

Sometimes instead of being immersed in sorrow over the fact that whoever it was died, I find myself laughing myself off my chair. General John Sedgwick was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War. His last words were, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist-."

It seems this tome might provide a rare opportunity for research if one considers the possibility that people who are "at death's door" might get a glimpse of what lies beyond death's door as they are about to pass through that door. Here's my imagined scenario.

Someone is on his/her death bed, not quite out of this world, not quite into the next. As this person is about to die, but not quite dead, the door to the afterlife slowly begins to crack open, so in that last second when they are still in this world, but about to enter the next they can see into that next world about which we are all so curious, and possibly report back to someone who is still struggling on this earthly plane WHAT IT IS THAT THEY SEE? WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE AFTERLIFE?

I thought I was really onto something in this vein when I turned to page three and read the quote of Thomas Edison's last words which were, "It's very beautiful over there." I must say I was a little let down when I read the text that accompanies the quote and discovered that he was looking out the window when he said it. So, did Mr. Edison mean it was very beautiful out in the yard, or did he mean it was very beautiful over there in Heaven, or Purgatory, or Nothingness, or Mezzanine, or Wherever?


Reading the rest of the book seemed to offer me no other insights regarding the afterlife, but the quotes are fun and the book is entertaining.

I would like to close by offering you one of the more interesting quotes. Actually, I'll offer two.

Carl Panzram was a convicted murderer. Just before he was executed he said, "I wish the whole human race had one neck and I had my hands around it."

Lady Astor, the first female member of the British House of Commons, died at the age of eighty-five. Shortly before dying she woke from sleep to find her entire family gathered around her bed. Her comment? "Am I dying or is this my birthday?"