Monday, June 29, 2015

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Reviewed by Meygan

After the future “war” takes place, the people who are left are divided up into factions. There is Amity, those who believe in happiness and peace; Candor, an honest and trustworthy group; Erudite, the most intelligent group, who believe in brains over brawn; Dauntless, for those who are risk takers and brave; and Abnegation, the selfless who take care of others before themselves, including those who are factionless. Because they are sixteen years old, Beatrice  and her brother Caleb will soon have to decide what faction they will join. 

 Even though everyone must take a “test” for faction suggestions, everyone has free will. However, once a decision is made then that is the final answer. There is no going back. Those who do not wish to reside in their faction choice will become factionless, basically homeless. Also, every faction believes “Faction before blood” meaning that if someone chooses to leave their family and enter into another faction, then that faction is their new family. Caleb is selfless and goes above and beyond to take care of others. Beatrice is not selfless and yearns for something different, a more exciting life. This is why Beatrice feels that Caleb was made for Abnegation but she is not. 

The day has arrived for Beatrice to take her test. The test is a simulation that places Beatrice in certain scenarios to see how she would react. Her actions will determine the faction she is best suited for. However, when the simulation is over, the test administrator, Tori, tells Beatrice that she is suited for Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. She tells Beatrice that because she is suited for all three factions, she is Divergent but to never, ever let anyone know that information. Beatrice is full of question (What it means to be Divergent is one of the questions), but Tori won’t answer anything else and she puts Beatrice’s test results as Abnegation.  

On the day of the ceremony, Beatrice must make a decision. She has always admired those who are dauntless—fearless, robust, and full of life. However, leaving Abnegation means that she no longer gets to be with her family. Can she handle the guilt of leaving behind her family for a new life? Is she brave enough for Dauntless? Should she make a choice to pursue a different kind of happiness, a happiness that doesn’t only revolve around her family? These are the questions that enter her mind as she is about to make the most important decision of her life.  

I mentioned to a co-worker that I hadn’t read Divergent yet. It had been on my “To Read” list for quite some time, but it became one of those books that kept getting shoved to the side. The tone of her voice when she asked, “You haven’t read Divergent yet?” made me realize I needed to read it NOW. Plus, we tend to like some of the same books so I knew that I could trust her insight. I love this book! I can’t think of one thing that I didn’t care for. I found the characters, the plot, the descriptions, the setting, and the dialogue to be fascinating. Yes, this is not the first dystopian novel to exist, but I thought it was so well written that I didn’t feel as if I were reading a rip-off of The Hunger Games or another piece of dystopian literature. 

However, I have been warned that the series becomes shoddier by each book and I have had several people (including patrons) tell me that the last book is almost unbearable. I believe that is why I was so reluctant to begin this series. It’s kind of like when a friend warns you about someone that you like but shouldn’t and even though you know the relationship will end badly, you just have to find out for yourself. Oh well. At least this reader is prepared for the expected heartache.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by Ambrea

Tristran Thorn has entered the word of Faerie with a mission on his mind:  he is going to retrieve a fallen star for Victoria Forester to prove his love and, more importantly, win her hand in marriage.  However, Tristran has one problem in retrieving the star:  the star is very much alive—and she doesn’t like Tristran, not one bit.  Thus taking with him an embittered and sarcastic star, Tristran takes a harrowing journey through a strange and wild land, fighting to keep himself (and the star) alive so he might safely return to his hometown of Wall.

Stardust is a wonderful novel with elaborate details and beautiful descriptions, and a witty sense of humor that’s sure to please.  The fantastical world of Faerie—including the Faerie Market—created by Neil Gaiman is a true treat to imagine, and the adventures of Tristran Thorn and Yvaine (the star) are enthralling.

I found it a simple task to become invested in their story, to get caught up in all the adventures and mishaps and dangers of the wild, wonderful world of Faerie.  The magic involved, the pure inventiveness and fantasy of Stardust, makes it easy to become attached to not only the characters but the entire world.

I especially loved the complexity of the story.  Stardust has a variety of tales and characters—the lords of Stormhold who are fighting to gain control of the realm, the witches of the Lilim who are hunting the star, Yvaine who is struggling to heal, Tristran who is attempting to return to Wall—that run in parallel courses and, eventually, intersect.  Occasionally, it’s difficult to discern where these threads meet and why; however, it’s thrilling when all the pieces finally come together and reveals a narrative tapestry.

Note:  Most versions of Stardust  include illustrations by Abingdon's Charles Vess.  Some of the visuals in the film of the same name were inspired by Vess's work.  Not sure if you've seen anything by Mr. Vess?  Then just take a look at the arch sculpture at the library's Piedmont entrance!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nevermore: Film, A Curious Mind, Plagues, A Wolf, and Nordic Noir

The Nevermore Book Club actually talked about movies to kick off a recent meeting.  One member highly recommended “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” a 1949 movie which starred Alec Guinness in a variety of roles.  It’s a dark comedy about a man who decides to murder his way to a title. 

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein is a difficult to classify book.  It’s a coming of age tale, a multi-generational saga, and a ghost story all rolled up into one.  Stein wrote the wonderful and highly acclaimed book The Art of Racing in the Rain, and while our reviewer didn’t feel this book quite measured up, she did enjoy it.

A Curious Mind:  The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer is an examination of those who are “intellectually curious,” people who take time to wonder why.  Grazer, a film producer, has found inspiration for some of his work through such people, and he believes that curiosity can improve one’s life. Part of the book is devoted to his conversations with both the famous and the not so famous, while other sections are memoir and meditation.  Our reader found much of the book to be very interesting—just not Mr. Grazer’s biographical sections, which she skipped.  Otherwise, she thought the book entertaining and worth her time.

Yellow Fever remained a topic of interest.  This time the book was American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby.  Today Yellow Fever seems to be a footnote in history books, belying its terrible cost. Like ebola,  it’s a hemorrhagic disease with terrifying symptoms that include bleeding, delirium, and jaundice.  People were terrified, and with good reason:  mortality rates were very high.  In the 1853 outbreak in Louisiana,  over 7000 people died in New Orleans alone. It took a terrible toll on medical personnel who were trying to help those infected. Crosby’s book concentrates on an outbreak in Memphis in 1878, vividly portraying the panic from residents.  Our reviewer found it as gripping as any thriller.

White Plague by James Abel is a non-stop action novel that takes place in the Arctic where a highly advanced submarine, the USS Montana, is in trouble.  There’s been a fire and the many of the crew are ill. The Pentagon dispatches bioterrorism expert Joe Rush to the rescue, but he may not arrive before the Chinese do.  This is a fast-paced military thriller that keeps the pages turning.  The Arctic setting is a definite plus, and the twists and turns keep on coming.  One reviewer compared it to the works of  both Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

Not quite as compelling was Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle.  The reclusive Sean Phillips develops an online game where players can make choices between adventures.  He becomes quite involved with some of the players, but only through the internet.  Our reviewer said that the book wasn’t cohesive and added, “If you want to be confused, this is the book to read.”

Several people put in recommendations for the novels of Karin Fossum.  She’s the author of the Inspector Sejer series, and often called “the Norwegian Queen of Crime,” but who began her career as a poet.  Her books center more on personality and motive than on strict police procedure.  Inspector Sejer is a calm, patient, polite man, unlike many of the Nordic Noir detectives who spend their time in existential angst.

Finally, the meeting came full circle back to film as some members sang the praises of PUSH, downtown’s Bristol first film festival.  They particularly praised “The Last Pyramid,” a documentary about stained glass artist Trish Barnes, who raised a million dollars for epilepsy research in memory of her son.  The film was described as both uplifting and moving, earning a standing ovation from the audience.  They expressed the hope that PUSH will continue.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Return of Nero Wolfe (and Archie)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Robert Goldsborough’s mother was an avid fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries.  After Stout’s demise, her son decided to write a new Wolfe novel for his mother’s reading pleasure.  The book was authorized by Stout’s estate and so in 1986 fans again visited the old brownstone in Murder in E Minor.

Goldsborough turned out several more Nero and Archie adventures before taking a hiatus and writing his own stories.  Recently, however, he’s returned to his origins, starting with 2012’s Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and continuing with two more adventures.

For those who aren’t familiar with the series, Nero Wolfe is a genius detective who rarely leaves his New York home, preferring to drink beer, tend his ten thousand orchids, read, and eat gourmet meals prepared by his chef.  Unfortunately for Mr. Wolfe, these occupations demand a good deal of money, which he earns by solving cases based on information gathered by his assistant Archie Goodwin and  an assortment of other operatives.  Stout cleverly blended two distinct mystery styles:  Archie is the tough talking, street wise partner in the mode of Sam Spade while Wolfe is the erudite connoisseur of the British gentleman sleuth school.  

In Murder in the Ball Park, Archie and series regular Saul Panzer are attending a baseball game when a state senator is shot to death.  Since the senator was behind a very controversial highway improvement plan, reneged on a deal with a crime boss, was carrying on an affair with a married woman under the nose of his wife and had his sights set on higher office, the line of suspects extends around the block.  Goldsborough does a good job with his 1950s setting, and I could almost smell the hot dogs in the ball park.  He also introduces some colorful characters and has the classic Wolfe gathering of the suspects at the climax.

Archie in the Crosshairs brings Wolfe to a case by making it personal:  someone takes a shot at Archie.  Since both Archie and Wolfe have made numerous enemies over the years, the line of suspects extends two blocks.

As a long time Nero Wolfe fan, I have to admit that these two efforts fall short of the original novels for several reasons.  One is that the characters are somehow shadows of the originals, without the nuances that I so enjoyed.  Archie is a bit more naive; Wolfe is bluster without substance.  There’s an attempt to convey the love of language, the love of food, and stimulating conversation, but the books just don’t quite pull it off. The original Wolfe was a man of ideas and ideals and could express them eloquently, whether or not a reader agreed with him.  

Another is that these are now historical novels.  Stout wrote the books in the present, while Goldsborough seeks to recreate an era.  He’s certainly done his research.  He likes to drop in little tidbits and explanations, aware that a contemporary audience wouldn’t have any idea about watching the Giants play at the Polo Grounds.  The trouble is that the explanations just remind me that this is all in the past in a way I never felt I was in the original books, even though those began in the 1930s.

All that said, I did enjoy these books because they reminded me of characters I love.  Goldsborough also worked hard at evoking a time and place in American history and succeeded to a certain extent.  I will read any others he produces.  I'm not the only one: we recently had a Rex Stout fan who lives outside of our service area to come and get a card from us because we were the only library in the area which had these two titles. If I were to choose just one to recommend, I'd go with Murder in the Ball Park just because I felt the setting was a bit better done and I had a good sense of place.  I'm not a pro baseball fan, so that aspect didn't influence my choice.

But I will also go back and reread Rex Stout’s original novels.  Maybe I’ll have a hot dog while I read. I've been craving one ever since I read about the Polo Grounds.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Serena by Ron Rash

Reviewed by Meygan 

I love villains. There, I said it. Judge me all you want, but I can’t stand to watch a movie or read a book with a villain that is dull or not wicked enough. This is not to say that I want the villain to win, per se. Even though I love the Joker, Bane, Poison Ivy, and other various Batman characters, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want Batman to have justice. It just means that I love a villain who can capture my attention and keep me enthralled until the part where he or she must be defeated. With that said, Serena in Ron Rash’s Serena is conniving, malicious, demanding, and I couldn’t get enough of her. 

Serena and Pemberton are newlyweds and they are deeply, madly infatuated with one another. They have moved from Boston to the mountains of North Carolina in order to establish a logging company. It is apparent that Pemberton and Serena are not hurting for cash by any means, but as the old saying goes, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, which is a quote they seem to support. The town’s men do not know what to think of Serena. She doesn’t dress like “normal” women by wearing dresses. Instead, she wears pants and comfortable shoes so she can assist her husband in whatever work there is to be done. She is also opinionated and boisterous—something else most of the men do not approve of. In her spare time, Serena trains an Eagle to kill poisonous snakes within the mountains of their new home. Even though people are amazed and grateful due to the fact that there are less poisonous snakes, they wonder how she trained the bird so well. (All I could picture at that point was a malevolent queen sitting upon her throne, stroking the head of her obedient, sinister pet.) 

Pemberton and Serena are both willing to do whatever it takes (or kill whoever) in order to rise to the top. While Pemberton is not innocent, it is often Serena who plays devil’s advocate, metaphorically perched upon his shoulder, whispering what needs to be done to make things “right”.  However, Serena is not the only one who the town has to become accustomed to. Pemberton has made some enemies along the way, especially when a girl he has impregnated before meeting Serena brings her father to meet Pemberton at the train station. Yes, Serena is well aware of the girl and the baby, but her warning for Rachel to stay away from her husband is stern and clear. 

There are many stories within the story, but my favorite parts were from Rachel’s point of view. My heart goes out to the young mother who works for the man who fathered her child but cannot contact due to his domineering wife. I think Ron Rash did a wonderful job with character and plot development in Serena. This was the first Ron Rash novel I had read, but this certainly won’t be the last.