Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Nonfiction from Nevermore!

The readers of Nevermore Book Club have some non-fiction books to recommend:
Autopsy of War:  A Personal Memoir by John A. Parrish portrays the trauma of war and its lasting effects.  Parrish was a navy physician during the Vietnam War. He returned to the U.S. and appeared to be quite successful, but his emotional life was crumbling.  He was unable to bond with his family due to PTSD, and he began a downward spiral that nearly destroyed him. Parrish is brutally honest about the war as well as his own failures and successes. 
Rabid:  A Cultural History of the World’s Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy not only explores the history of this most feared disease, it examines the hold it has on human imagination.  The stories of werewolves may have had their origin in the history of rabies, a disease that can turn even a mild mannered creature into the stuff of nightmares. Even today rabies remains a dreaded and deadly disease.  Our reviewer said this book was like The Hot Zone by Richard Preston:  interesting, entertaining, and terrifying, all at once.
Cracking the Egyptian Code by Andrew Robinson is the fascinating story of how one man finally discovered the key to reading Egyptian hieroglyphics.  People had puzzled over the strange symbols for years but no one was able to figure out how to read them.  The 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone a stele  with the same inscription in Greek,  Egyptian demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphs, seemed to promise a way to reading the ancient writing but it still took over 20 years before a young Frenchman named Jean-Francois Champollion, an extremely gifted linguist, was able to provide a translation.  It sounds simple enough, but the true story is strewn with political upheavals within France and international rivalries with other scholars.
Snow- Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 by Jefferson Morley brings to life a little-known incident of racial tensions in the nation’s capitol.  As free blacks entered Washington, D.C. and abolitionist literature was being distributed, fears of a black uprising began to fester among part of the population.  The city’s District Attorney, Francis Scott Key—yes, the author of the Star Spangled Banner—decided to vigorously prosecute not the rioters, but two people he blamed for inciting the riots:  a young slave who threatened his owner with an ax and an abolitionist handing out antislavery material.  Besides Key, the cast of characters includes President Andrew Jackson, threatened owner Anna Thornton, free black restaurateur Beverly Snow, and Sam Houston.  The result is a riveting tale which vividly illuminates the era just before the Civil War.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Nevermore: Lighthouses, sharks and cats

There seemed to be a bit of a nautical theme going on for part of Nevermore, starting with some rave reviews for The Light Between Oceans, a beautifully written, haunting novel by M.L. Stedman.  After the Great War, Tom Sherbourne has been content with his job as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote Australian island.  He’s joined by his free spirited wife, Isabel, and together they make an isolated life in a place where even supply boats rarely come.  Tom and Isabel long for a child, but their son is stillborn.  Then a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a living baby, and it seems all their dreams are about to come true. More than one member of the book club recommended this book.
Jud brought in Surviving the Shark by Jonathan Kathrein who was just a teenager when he was bitten by a Great White.  While the book covers his traumatic experience and its aftermath, he also explains why he is a advocate for sharks today, trying to convince people that these amazing fishes need protection. By coincidence, Jeanne had brought in Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo and Twelve Days of Terror by Richard Fernicola, both of which dealt with the infamous 1916 incident in which a shark swam up a river in New Jersey and attacked several people, some fatally. 
On a lighter note, The Lighthouse, the Cat and the Sea by Leigh W. Rutledge features an elderly feline narrator who tells the story of her life starting from when she was a ship’s kitten, before she was swept overboard.   However, the story is really more about the humans in her life, from an animal-loving ship’s cook to the lighthouse keeper and her family to a widow who may find love again.  The setting is early Key West, which just adds to the charm.  Our reviewer thought it was delightful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fowl Weather by Bob Tarte

Reviewed by Jeanne
I just finished a book which should have left me weeping.  It covered the death of a parent, the author’s struggle with grief and clinical depression, loss of more than one beloved pet, and a mother’s decent into dementia.  This isn’t my usual fare of choice, but then again this isn’t a usual book.
Readers of this blog will know that I already gave a rave review to Kitty Cornered (and no, it wasn’t just because of all the cats) and to Tarte’s first book, Enslaved by Ducks, which described just how a guy with no animal ambitions whatsoever ended up with bunnies, cats, geese, ducks, turkeys, a dove, a parrot and, well, I kind of lost track.  Suffice it to say one critter leads to another.
Fowl Weather is actually the second book, picking up not long after Ducks.  It’s another very funny book, filled with delightful and memorable characters, some of whom are even human; but as I indicated above, it faces many of life’s darker moments and does so not only with courage and grace but humor.  Laugh out loud humor. Really.
Early in the book, Bob gets one of those life changing calls when he learns his father has died suddenly. There had been no warning.  He’d been out shoveling snow, digging out from a Michigan winter, when he fell.  He made it as far as the bed before he succumbed to a heart attack. Numb, Bob and his sisters help his mother with arrangements, legal issues and practical decisions, and try to adjust to the new normal.
Many years ago I read a line that has stayed with me:  no matter how old you are, you’re never ready to be an orphan.  It still rings true.
Bob and his sisters take turns checking on his mother, all the while Bob is battling a return of his depression, serious illnesses among some of his beloved pets, and trying to deal with a former classmate who apparently believes that no one’s life is so complete that it can’t be better if she “helps” out.   A new complication soon emerges, as Bob’s mother calls to complain that the neighbors are shunning her and that some of them are borrowing things without asking.  Then come the calls about her lost keys, lost purse, and even lost car. I think the "purse finder" solution is particularly ingenious and thought a few seconds about the possibility of using it for my car keys, purse, and my grocery list but decided that wasn't quite feasible.
Among Tarte’s gifts is the ability to see humor and irony in even the grimmest situation.  He doesn’t belittle or make light of the problems; he does make them bearable without casting himself as a superhero or victim. The animals are still foremost among the characters, including Stanley Sue the African grey parrot (whose name evolved after it was discovered “he” was actually she), Ollie the pocket parrot version of Mussolini, Moobie the cat who trains humans to hold her water bowl for her and Rudy the dwarf rabbit who, if he isn’t the reincarnation of Houdini, does a fine impression nonetheless.
I can honestly say I haven’t read another book that handled such difficult issues while making me laugh so much.  I’d recommend reading Enslaved by Ducks first so that you understand how the Tartes amassed their menagerie but it’s certainly not mandatory.
The earlier review is here.
 Bob Tarte has photos of most of the furred and feathered characters posted at his website

Monday, September 17, 2012

No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Continues to Charm

Reviewed by Jeanne
I started reading the “Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books back some years ago, when there were only about four or five in the series.  I admit they took a little getting used to, what with all those exotic names of people and places, a different rhythm to the speech, and such a different setting:  the African country of Botswana.  I don’t know that I had ever given Botswana a great deal of notice before, but after making the acquaintance of Precious Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Grace Makutsi and all the others who populate these wonderful tales I had to read further about the real country.
As with many series, some books are more successful than others.  I had become comfortable with the books and sort of took them for granted.  A new one was like a big bowl of mashed potatoes:  delicious, comforting, and no surprises. When I noticed The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection on the new book shelf, I started to read it but realized somehow I’d failed to read the previous book. So I also checked out The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, and settled in for a visit with friends. 
Saturday didn’t disappoint.  One of the most interesting aspects for me as a reader is how McCall-Smith has allowed his characters’ lives to change gradually, without too much drama or upheaval.  In this one, a long awaited event occurs for Mma Makutsi, while Mma Ramotswe tries to solve a case involving injured cattle, dreams of her beloved white van and tries to help one of the apprentice mechanics do the right thing.  It was a vintage story.
Satisfied, I picked up Limpopo and settled in for more of the same.  My first surprise was that a person who had been mentioned since the very first book, Mr. Clovis Anderson, noted author of The Principles of Private Detection, actually shows up in Botswana.  Needless to say, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are somewhat awed by this person, but fortunately he seems to be as humble and approachable as one could wish a great man to be.  Even better, there are two mysteries to be solved, and Mr. Anderson lends his aid without slighting the ladies’ abilities in the least.  One involves Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm, who has been dismissed from her post, while the other has some rather odd dealings with a contractor who is building Grace and Phuti’s dream house. 
As I’ve indicated, the series is a solid one, and one I’d begun to take for granted.  Limpopo is a top notch entry in the series, reminding me of everything I loved about the early books and reducing me to tears at the end.  If you haven’t picked up one of the books for awhile, by all means give this one a try.
Note:  I also highly recommend the video version of “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.”  A lot of films disappoint but this series is a delight, not only visually but aurally as well.  Hearing the rhythms of speech as well as the music of the region is wonderful.  The colors are bright and as vivid as the characters.  Bonus features offer some comments from the author and the cast. The library has the DVD as well as a documentary on Botswana, with Alexander McCall Smith taking viewers to some of the real places depicted in the books.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mike Lawson's Political Thrillers with a Fun Twist

Reviewed by Doris                  Joe DeMarco is a fixer. Some might even call him a political bag man.  He works for the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Mahoney, and his job is to do dirty little political jobs protect Mahoney’s interests which frequently coincide with the interests of the United States.  Sometimes it’s as easy as picking up a “contribution” to Mahoney’s campaign war chest. Sometimes it involves guns, shooting, car chases, crazies trying to overthrow the government, and federal agencies stabbing each other in the back.
          Mike Lawson has done six thrillers centering on Joe DeMarco. Using his experience as a former senior civilian executive for the U. S. Navy, Lawson’s behind-the-scenes knowledge of Washington politics gives his books the ring of truth. They are also funny, action-packed, and loaded with interesting, a bit off-kilter characters. Among critics and readers Mike Lawson has made a name for himself as one of the most entertaining and insightful writers focusing on the dirty games played in our nation’s capital.      
          Interesting character #1 is Joe. Just as Joe graduates from law school with visions of becoming a partner in some big New York firm, his father is exposed as a Mafia hit man with numerous murders to his credit. Heartbroken to find out the father he dearly loved is a murderer, he also sees any chance he had of being hired at a prestigious firm disappear. Then his aunt Connie pulls a rabbit out of the hat. Years ago when she worked in Washington, D. C., she had an affair with a young politico named Mahoney. Mahoney has become Speaker of the House, and Joe finds himself in a basement office no one knows exists, in a job no one can track to the Speaker’s office. As the years pass, Joe becomes an average guy dealing with debt, divorce, an unreasonable boss, and a job he can never put on a resume.     
          Interesting character#2 is John Fitzpatrick Mahoney. An icon of American politics, Mahoney is a womanizing, functioning alcoholic with all the political savvy of Tip O’Neill combined with the power of Sam Rayburn. A ruthless and righteous Speaker, Mahoney is always walking on the edge of some disaster. He sends Joe into these disasters without a thought about Joe’s immortal soul, just a grin, and the warning, “Don’t mess up.”  
          Interesting character#3 is Emma. She is a “retired” agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Tall, aristocratic, several times smarter than Joe, Emma often has to help Joe with not messing up. She has contacts all over the world, and Joe often wonders if she is really retired. He is always glad to see her, if for no other reason than Emma knows how to shoot a gun. Why does Emma help Joe? Good question! Joe actually saved her life purely by accident and she feels an obligation to save him. When it becomes more and more apparent that Joe is often in way over his head, she knows she is the only thing standing between Joe and death.    
          Lawson’s books are thrillers much like those of Baldacci, Child, and countless other writers of the genre. I like his books because they make just a bit of fun at the whole political thriller scene. The plots are fast paced and often right out of the headlines. As already mentioned, the characters are interesting, and I have become rather attached to Joe and Mahoney. Lawson would great fun to take to dinner and discuss what he really knows about Washington.     
          The Joe DeMarco series in order:  The Inside Ring—there is an assassination attempt on the President. He is only wounded, but his best friend and a Secret Service Agent are killed. It turns out that the attack wasn't without warning. General Andrew Banks, the Secretary of Homeland Security, received a note that the president was in danger, and even more alarming, that Secret Service agents guarding the president had been compromised.    
The Second Perimeter—when the Secretary of the Navy’s nephew tells him that two colleagues at a naval base are committing fraud, he is skeptical and reluctant to start an official investigation. He asks Speaker of the House John Mahoney to send his fixer Joe to check out the story. Joe and Emma soon realize that what they thought was a low-stakes government swindle is something far more terrifying. Soon they’re mixed up in a deadly conflict with Chinese spies, and not only is Emma’s life in danger, but Mahoney’s is as well.  
House Rules—a terrorist bombing of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel is narrowly avoided. Then a private plane headed straight for the White House ignores warnings and is shot down. Suspects in both attacks are Muslim. An atmosphere of fear and panic overruns the country, and when the junior senator from Virginia proposes to deport all noncitizen Muslims and run extensive background checks on all Muslim Americans, his bill gains surprising traction.  Speaker of the House John Mahoney is not pleased. He knows it is the kind of knee-jerk response people will come to regret, like Japanese internment camps, and he needs to find a way to kill the bill before it exposes a secret he wants to keep. So Mahoney calls on Joe to get to the bottom of the attacks.   
House Secrets—Joe is sent by Mahoney to look into the accidental death of a mediocre newspaper reporter who, in the days before his death, claimed that he had a lead on the biggest political scandal since Watergate. It turns out that the reporter was on the trail of Senator Paul Morelli, the handsome and gifted rising star from New York, considered a shoo-in for his party’s presidential nomination. Morelli’s past has already been scrutinized and he looks clean, but then why is Joe being followed by a pair of thugs who freelance for the CIA?  
House Justice—an American defense contractor goes to Iran to sell missile technology, and the CIA knows all about it thanks to a spy in Tehran. But the story is leaked to an ambitious journalist and the spy is burned, brutally tortured, and executed.     The Director of the CIA isn’t about to let the callous sacrifice of his valuable spy go unpunished. Speaker of the House John Fitzpatrick Mahoney has his own reasons to get to the bottom of the leak: he once had a fling with the journalist, and now that she’s in jail for refusing to reveal her source, she is threatening to tell all unless he helps get her out.    DeMarco and the CIA aren’t the only ones looking for the source of the leak. Someone else wants to avenge the spy’s death, and is tailing Joe hoping he’ll lead him to his prey. House Justice  is classic Mike Lawson— fascinating characters, inside-the-beltway intrigue, and a gripping plot packed with surprises.
House Divided: When the NSA accidentally records the murder of two civilians, there's a bit of a problem:  the wiretap was illegal. As a four star general and a master spy face off, DeMarco finds himself in danger-- and Mahoney isn't around to help him.  
House Blood--DeMarco is asked to look into the murder conviction of a lobbyist. But he has other worries on his mind: his boss is no longer Speaker; his girlfriend has left him, and his friend Emma may be dying. DeMarco doesn’t expect to free the lobbyist – much less to become the target of two of the most callous killers he and Emma have ever encountered.Show More