Friday, December 29, 2017

BPL Book Bingo: Harry Potter, Fred Chappell, and the Cat Sitter

Reviews by Jeanne

This year, Bristol Public Library and the Avoca Branch Library offered a Summer Reading Program for adults in the form of BPL Book Bingo.  Participants had a bingo-type card except that in place of numbers were categories such as “Read a book written before 1900” or “Watch a movie based on a book.” I had intended to just read enough for one or two bingos.  Instead, I ended up doing “Blackout Bingo,” i.e., completing all the squares on the sheet, even though I had to stay up way past my bedtime to get all the reading done.  The reason I became so enamored was that it got me out of my reading rut and enticed me to make inroads on all those books I had always meant to read but had put off reading.  Here’s a sample of three books I read for the challenge:

Family Gathering by former North Carolina Poet Laureate Fred Chappell satisfied both the requirement for reading a book of poetry and my pledge to myself to sit down and read something by this North Carolina author. The title sets up the theme of the collection: family gatherings, warts and all.  There are portraits of individuals of all ages, from young Elizabeth who is “Priss-proud in her finery and bored/Bored bored” because the grownups aren’t admiring her to Grandma Settle, who pages through the photo albums and reveals the dim past, back before “the wars arrived, and all the lads/Were handsome, tall, and brave, and none was dead.” Satire, humor, and pathos await the reader, rather like the classic Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.  

Even though I count myself a Harry Potter fan, having read all the books, visited the amusement park, and seen most of the movies, I had not read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Not only were the reviews on it a bit mixed (some loved it, some loathed it), but theatrical scripts are not among my favorite choices of things to read.  Still there was that square which asked me to “Read a play,” so I decided to give it a try.  I was pleased to find that I wasn’t nearly as bothered by the format as I had thought.  I believe it’s because my familiarity with the J.K. Rowlings’ magical realm enabled me to visualize settings and people, and part of my enjoyment became thinking of ways certain scenes could be staged. As for the story itself, there were parts that I liked very much indeed, but there were others that made me a bit sad—yet I could see why this or that might have happened, even if I didn’t like it.

Finally, I chose The Cat Sitter and the Canary by Blaize and John Clement to fulfill my “Read a book in a series” requirement.  This was much more my usual fare (cozy mystery with a kitty or two), and I had read all the others in the series to date.  Dixie Hemingway works as a pet sitter in picturesque Siesta Key, Florida where she encounters murders on the basis usually found in such series; that is, at least one a book.  The series was begun by Blaize Clement but continued by her son, John, based on conversations they shared before her death.  The books have been just a bit uneven since, sometimes relying very much on a checklist sort of events.  This one involves finding a dead body in a client’s home and a mysterious tourist who seemed to have lost his key to his rented house.  The writing was smoother than in some entries and there were signs that upcoming changes may shake up Dixie’s world.  I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I’ll reserve judgment until I see for certain where things are going.  I may find it’s just what the editor ordered to keep the series fresh.

The exciting news is that BPL Bingo is returning this winter!  Starting January 2, you can pick up a Bingo sheet at Main or Avoca to participate.  We do have some small prizes to award for those who accomplish enough tasks to get Bingo.  The game will run until February 28, giving everyone extra time to win--er, read!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Nevermore: Graveyard Book, Alone, October Sky, Glass Houses, Little Fires Everywhere

Reported by Ambrea

We kicked Nevermore off with a review of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which tells the story of an unusual boy who lives in an unusual place—the local cemetery.  After the murder of his entire family, Bod has spent much of his life being raised by the otherworldly denizens of the cemetery.  But when Bod wants to see the world of the living and learn there’s more to the life than the dead, he’ll discover that the graveyard he’s come to know and love may very well be the safest place to be.  Our reader said The Graveyard Book was really neat and interesting.  “It’s gruesome,” she admitted, “but somehow amusing.”  It’s a weird, but fun story that offers a classic story of good versus evil—and a wild ride.

Next, Nevermore checked out Alone  by Michael Korda, which carries the wordy subtitle Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk:  Defeat into Victory.  A stirring epic of remarkable proportions, Alone reconstructs the events that lead to the Battle of Dunkirk and its immediate aftermath.  Interwoven with Korda’s own family history, Alone is a thoroughly researched and well-written account of one of the most pivotal moments of World War II.  Our reader enjoyed Michael Korda’s book immensely, noting that the author writes incredibly well and offers a piece of beautifully crafted nonfiction.  He recommended it highly to his fellow history buffs.

October Sky (originally titled Rocket Boys) by Homer Hickam also proved to be popular at our Nevermore meeting.  In his wonderful memoir, Hickam tells the story of his adolescence in the small mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia—and his inspiration to build rockets when he first watched Sputnik travel across the sky.  Our reader said she and her husband really enjoyed reading their shared copy of October Sky.  She noted that Hickam was incredibly candid and introspective, providing a surprisingly detailed description of his hometown and a brutally honest portrayal of himself, his friends, and his family as they endured a time of great change and discovery.

Next, Nevermore looked at Glass Houses by the ever popular Louise Penny.  The thirteenth book in the Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, Glass Houses is an intriguing mystery that the book jacket claims “shatters the conventions of the crime novel to explore what Gandhi called the court of conscience.  A court that supersedes all others.”  When a mysterious figure appears in Three Pines during a bitter November day, Gamache is wary of the dark shadow it casts.  He waits and watches—and then a body is discovered.  Months later, in a courtroom in July, Gamache must reckon with his actions on that fateful day.  Our reader admitted that she’s a big fan of Louise Penny.  After reading the rest of Penny’s series, she was excited to pick up this latest mystery and she said she wasn’t disappointed!

Last, but certainly not least, Nevermore picked up Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.  In Shaker Heights, a picture-perfect suburb on the outskirts of Cleveland, Elena Richardson lives with her picture-perfect family.  But when Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive, Elena’s idyllic bubble is quickly shattered.  When her distrust becomes an obsession, Elena will discover the dangers that lurk behind perfection.  Our reader said he enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere immensely.  It’s a fascinating novel that delves deep into family and neighborhood dynamics, and it takes a long hard look at the cost of perfection.  He pointed out that perfect was insidious, noting Elena makes things perfect, “like a steamroller makes a road flat.  It’s perfect, but it crushes things along the way.”  He highly recommended it to his fellow Nevermore members, and he soon passed it on to the next reader.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Man From the Train by Bill James and Rachel James

Reviewed by Jeanne

(Note:  while two authors are credited, Bill James’ is the dominant voice, so instead of trying to tease out who said what, I’m just going to use “he” and “James” to indicate author.)

While public fascination with serial killers is fairly modern, such killers are not: Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, Mary Ann Cotton, and Jesse Pomeroy were all active pre-1900. Bill James, best known as a baseball analyst, became interested in two historical murder cases. The first was a horrific murder in June, 1912, in which a family was massacred in Villisca, Iowa. Several books have been written about this one, as the perpetrator was never found.  Just about a year earlier, there were two families murdered by axe on the same night in Colorado Springs.  In all these cases, the murderer was organized and brutally efficient—professional, almost.  James hired his daughter to research newspaper databases of the era to try to discover if there were other such murders.

There were. During the course of the book, James describes a number of cases, noting similarities and deviations, and invites the reader to join in the speculation.  At the end, James believes he has found a definite pattern, and, indeed, a suspect.

I read a bit of true crime, but I prefer historical cases rather than contemporary; this book appeared to fit the bill.  I opened the book to discover that the first instance was in a little town in rural southwest Virginia called Hurley—about 95 miles from Bristol.

Naturally, I was hooked.

In some of the cases, people were actually convicted of the crime and executed, but often on very little evidence.  For example, while robbery was the usual motive given, but in many instances money and other valuables were found in plain sight.  This became one hallmark James used to sift through the cases.  Other features included use of the blunt end of an axe in commission of the crime, the events usually taking place late at night, victims found in their beds with their faces covered by a cloth, indications that the murderer spent time in the house after committing the crime, locking doors, and covering windows.

Of course, the main feature that connected these murders was the proximity of the home to railroad tracks.  James’ theory (and others) is that the murderer would hop a train and leave town, hence the title of the book.

Some reviewers took exception to the light tone James employs in describing events, but as he explains, the book is about occurrences so dreadful that the only way to deal with the continuous horror is to try to lighten the mood. I agree with his choice, but others may not.  He also doesn’t linger over details except when they pertain to his pattern, so he avoids gruesome images inasmuch as possible.

Another thing I appreciated is that James doesn’t take the stance that he is right in all instances but allows the reader to agree or disagree.  Some cases may have four or five features in common with the profile but have others that seem to be at odds with it.  James gives his reasons for including or excluding that event but doesn’t insist that others agree with his conclusion. I have to say this is rather unusual in my experience.  Often, an author is fixated on getting the reader to conclude that the author’s explanation is the only possible one. (It seems to me that this is especially true of books about Jack the Ripper, but isn’t limited to those.)

Part of what I like about historical mysteries is that usually the author sets the stage by telling us about the social, economic, and/or governmental situation of the day.  In James’ book, we get a bit of a lesson in how police departments and crime scene investigation evolved, not to mention the role of the press.  It’s not surprising that in several cases when the crime is “solved,” the accepted solution is usually a person of color or low social standing in the community. Some of the accused were lynched before a trial could take place. As I mentioned at the beginning, serial killers have been around a long time, but the concept that someone could be murdering people for the thrill of it is newer.  This hampered many investigations because authorities were certain the perpetrator had to have some connection with the victims; even when two families were murdered in very similar ways in the same area, the police looked for connections between the families, not really considering the attack could have been from a stranger. I think most eye-opening to me was the information about detectives, a job for which there were very few (if any) qualifications except a desire to make a buck.

My only real complaint about the book is the lack of an index.  With so many cases and so much ground to cover, I sometimes wanted to refresh my memory on details but locating specifics was difficult without aforementioned index. A more minor complaint is the lack of a bibliography.  Sources are cited, and due credit is given to authors (Beth Klingensmith gets especial thanks) and newspapers but sometimes a bit more information would have been helpful if someone wanted to read the original material. 

Overall, I found this to be a fascinating book and recommend it. I will say it’s sometimes enjoyed best in small doses as the body count rises; even the light tone adopted can’t gloss over the fact that a large number of people are brutally murdered, usually in their beds.  It went down much better when  read during the day and not in the evenings. This would be a good book for a reader’s group, wherein people could debate the various murders and decide which ones were part of a pattern and which weren’t.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Nevermore: Wiley Cash, Astrophysics, Elly Griffiths, Bloody Roads South, Murder on the Orient Express

Reported by Kristin

Nevermore began with some Appalachian flavor with The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash.  Ella May Wiggins is living in North Carolina in 1929, scraping by on the night shift at the local cotton mill.  The dirt and the danger are hard for the young woman to handle, but she is desperate to feed her family.  Union organizers start pushing for reform, but the leadership denounces their efforts as Communist.  Ella May decides to join the union movement at great personal risk.  The story is told by Ella May’s daughter Lilly, an old woman at the time of the telling.  The mingling of points of view is one of Cash’s trademarks, and he tells the story well.

A tiny book put in an appearance, What Women Say About Men: Witty Observations on the Male of the Species.  While group members chuckled, our reader said that it was a very enjoyable book, and surprisingly, she didn’t finish as quickly as she would have thought because she had to reflect upon the points made.

Another small but dense book was discussed next:  Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Our reader said that this is for people who really want the big picture, and although it took him three weeks to read and digest it, it was well worth it.  Covering universal concepts (pun intended,) Tyson proposes many new facts for the lay person to get his or her mind around, so that many people may end up with even more new questions and ideas to explore further.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths brings back anthropologist Ruth Galloway to examine another set of bones, these found in the labyrinth of tunnels under Norwich.  The bones were translucent, almost as if they had been boiled.  Ruth has been involved with a local policeman during the earlier books in the series, and the affair continues.  Our reader very much enjoyed the characters and gives Ruth positive reviews, reading everything in the series for the past several years.

Our next reader was intrigued by Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864 by Noah Andre Trudeau.  Vividly detailed personal accounts from the last strategic push of the Civil War show what carnage the soldiers endured and their thoughts as poured out to loved ones in letters.  Bringing alive the people involved, these little vignettes tell an engaging story to lovers and students of history alike.

Lastly, the new movie in theatres inspired another reader to pick up Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.  Called “the most widely read mystery of all time,” the story is comprised of a classic locked room murder, when Edward Ratchett is stabbed to death inside his train berth with the door locked from the inside (but no murderer in sight.)  Our reader said that she still had about twenty pages to go, and was looking forward to the dénouement.