Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Nevermore: Ex Hex, The Sentence, Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years, Number One Is Walking

 Reported by Garry

 

The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling is a fun, supernatural rom-com, though our reader notes it does have an “R” rating. Vivienne Jones is a young witch whose heart was broken by the dashing Rhys Penhallow. Doing what any crossed witch would do, Vivienne cast a curse on Rhys, but assumed that it would simply be an annoyance more than anything else. When Rhys comes back to town for Graves Glen’s annual fall festival, Vivienne discovers how very wrong she was, and how out of control her hex has become. The two exes must work together to break the break-up curse before it destroys their hometown.  PP 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich is another supernatural story with an especially interesting twist – the author is a character in her own book, and the story takes place in the bookstore owned by the author. Tookie is a young Ojibwe woman, newly out of prison. She starts working at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis (the real-life bookstore owned by Erdrich), and shortly thereafter the store becomes haunted by the ghost of the store’s best, but most difficult, client. The ghost story takes a sudden turn when George Floyd is murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, and COVID-19 shuts the country down. These two storylines intertwine in an unexpected and gripping novel by one of America’s premier writers.  MH

Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years; The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet by Jamyang Norbu. Sir Conan Doyle never explained the two years that Sherlock Holmes spent after that fateful plunge off the Reichenbach Falls, so Tibetan author Jamyang Norbu has. In Norbu’s vision, Holmes makes his way to Tibet with the help of Huree Chunder Mookherjee (a character from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim), Holmes makes his way to Lhasa and helps the newly anointed 13th Dalai Lama secure his place against the Imperial Chinese forces. According to our reader, this is a great mystery that will keep readers enthralled for hours, and will especially delight those who appreciate writers like Conan Doyle and Jules Verne.  AH 

Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions by Steve Martin is the self-effacing new memoir by one of America’s leading funny men. Steve Martin has been acting on TV and in the movies since the late 1960s. Sharing anecdotes from his time on such movies as Roxanne, The Jerk, Father of the Bride and many more, Martin shares insights into his time in front of and behind the camera over the past forty years. This book is illustrated by New York Times cartoonist Harry Bliss, and our reader especially loved what the cartoons added to the stories of Martin’s years in the entertainment business.  CD.

 

Also mentioned:

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

That Night by Alice McDermott

A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley

They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent by Sara Kendzior

Left of Eden by Dennis Broe

Polar Exposure: An All-Women’s Expedition to the North Pole by Felicity Aston

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

All the Broken Places by John Boyne

Sweet Land of Liberty: A History of America in 11 Pies by Rossi Anastopoulo

Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

Trouble on Tybee by Tammy Marshall

City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita

Hidden in Snow by Vivica Sten

Bridge to the Sun: The Secret Role of the Japanese Americans Who Fought in the Pacific in World War II by Bruce Henderson

Great Short Books: A Year of Reading -- Briefly by Kenneth C. Davis

Maus Now: Selected Writing edited by Hillary Chute

Monday, January 30, 2023

Prose and Cons by Wendy Corsi Staub

 


Reviewed by Jeanne

When Bella Jordan’s beloved husband Sam died, he left behind a grieving widow and their young son Max. Financial problems meant they had to leave their home to go live with Sam’s mother, a prospect that filled Bella with despair. It turned out that fate (or should that be Fate?) had other plans. Instead Bella and Max found themselves in Lily Dale, a very small town dedicated to the Spiritualist movement with a cat who seems to have, well, just appeared.  Practical Bella is a bit flummoxed at first, finding herself surrounded by people who believe that they can talk to the dead but she comes to love the strong sense of community and the friendships she forms.  She even lands a job she wasn’t looking for, that of managing Valley View, a boarding house for those visiting the town.

That’s just the way things happen in Lily Dale.

As might be imagined, there are any number of quirky characters about—some easier to take than others.  One of those “others” is Pandora, who once lived in Valley View before a divorce forced her out.  Trouble is, she sometimes seems to have trouble remembering she no longer owns the house and tends to make herself at home. This time around, she announces that her dear Aunt Eudora and her beau Nigel are coming to stay and as auntie is elderly and fragile, Pandora doesn’t want her to know that she no longer owns the house.  Instead, she proposes not only that auntie and friend stay, but that she, Pandora, will move in to keep up the pretense.  Bella reluctantly agrees, being too kind for her own good.

The guests arrive, but somehow something seems—off.  It’s not just that they are so demanding, though they are that. It’s something else.  Something dark.  Something that could be dangerous.

While there is an entertaining mystery, I’m more drawn to the emotional side of the plot.  Bella is struggling to move ahead with her life without Sam. She would love to believe that he’s out there, somewhere, and that she could make contact but she remains a skeptic. She needs proof. She’s also struggling with her attraction to veterinarian Drew, feeling she’s being disloyal to Sam. Most of all, she’s trying to navigate her way through grief while trying to raise a son and make a living.

I also appreciate the interesting Lily Dale residents who definitely march to the beat of a different drum.  Some are funny and charming, some a bit too self-centered (cough, Pandora, cough), but most are down to earth and kind. One part of the story is told from Pandora’s point of view which makes her more sympathetic if not less annoying. Max and his friend Jiffy are delightful; they seem more like real kids than most literary children, and the rest of the ensemble add to the tale.  The psychic elements are appropriately murky. There’s a bit of an information dump near the end, but because I had so many other elements to interest me, I didn’t mind.

I’ll also note that the mystery is more cold-blooded than might be expected.

I’ve enjoyed this series.  The psychic elements are definitely there and easy to believe in, but I like that Bella is yet to be convinced. After reading the first in this series, I read a non-fiction book by a reporter who came to Lily Dale and who let readers draw their own conclusions.  By the end, there were some things that weren’t easily explained but the writer didn’t wholly embrace all the claims. This fiction series tries to tread the same line and does fairly well at it.

I’m definitely going to read the next in the series. I’m intrigued by both the real place and its fictional counterpart. These can be read as standalones, but I’m glad I did read them in order.

Nine Lives

Something Buried, Something Blue

Dead of Winter

Prose and Cons

The Stranger Vanishes

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang

 




Reviewed by Ben

 

I just finished The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Chang was a Chinese-American writer for whom this book represented a personal quest to bring the story of the Japanese Imperial Army's war crimes to more modern-day Americans. The book was published in 1997. WARNING: this book is a disturbing read.

 

This book tells the story of what the Japanese army did to the population of China's then capitol city, Nanking-or Nanjing-, during the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s, part of the larger conflict of World War II. After defeating Chinese forces and capturing the city, occupying soldiers from Japan subjected locals to brutality that is arguably unsurpassed by any other war crimes carried out during the Second World War. The victors executed Chinese soldiers and civilians alike-men and women, children and the elderly-at times using their helpless victims for bayonet practice, training the more green Japanese troops to kill without remorse. The Japanese media even kept the public up to date on a killing contest between two officers. The first to kill 100 Chinese people with his sword would win. The total was later upped to 150 after both contestants unknowingly surpassed 100, without tracking who did so first. The war crimes didn't stop at killing. The Imperial Army carried out rapes on a massive scale, brazenly dragging women from their homes and refugee camps, frequently torturing and killing them in the process.

 

To tell this story, Chang wove together Japanese and Chinese history far preceding World War II, survivors' accounts, contemporary media reports, and diary entries from westerners who lived in Nanking at the time and maintained a neutral zone to protect the local civilians. The source material gives valuable insight into how the Japanese army got to the point of mindless brutality and how the reader can get past modern Japanese denials of the Nanking massacre. One thing that stuck with me was that two Nazi party members who resided in Nanking were shocked at the war crimes committed against the Chinese civilians. They played a key role in efforts to protect locals from the occupiers.

 

As indicated by the title, the Nanking massacre is one of the lesser-known episodes from the Second World War. Political developments meant Japan was not compelled to publicly apologize for its actions in the Asian theater, including what its soldiers did in Nanking. I had not heard of this event until my mid-twenties. However I was not aware of exactly how bad things were until I read this book. After reading the chapter that went into the most detail regarding the atrocities of the Nanking occupation, I actually had a nightmare! I never thought I would be shocked by WWII war crimes after learning about The Holocaust in the sixth grade.

 

I recommend this book for readers who have a strong stomach and an incomplete understanding of what people in the Asian theater faced under Japanese occupation. I come away from this experience with a better understanding of the political and historical baggage between China and Japan.

 

 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Nevermore: Gilded Mountain, Marjorie Post, Lady Sherlock, Simplicity Parenting

 

Reported by Garry 

Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning. Set in Moonstone, Colorado at the turn of the 20th century, the story is told through the eyes of Sylvie Pelletier, a worker in the manor house owned by the Padgetts, the wealthy owners of the local marble mine. The Padgetts use harsh labor practices to enrich themselves while treating their employees as replaceable slaves. Sylvie becomes involved with the local newspaper and when tragedy strikes in the middle of a difficult winter, she must face the choice of keeping silent or extracting revenge.  NH

The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post by Allison Pataki. This historical novel highlights the life and times of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post Cereal fortune. Post was an incredibly astute and successful businesswoman, in a time when they were a rarity. In fact, she was a multi-millionaire before she was 30 years old, and was once the richest woman in America. Post’s father was C. W. Post, who essentially invented the food we know today as breakfast cereals. Marjorie inherited the company from C.W. and turned it into General Foods, the international powerhouse that we know today. Married four times, once to the Ambassador to Russia, Marjorie’s world was one of glamor, philanthropy, and politics. She amassed so many jewels and diamonds from all over the world that she once quipped that she had better jewels than the British royal family. Our reader grew up in Washington, DC just a few blocks from the Post’s house which figures prominently in this book, and was amazed to learn the deeper history of its famous owner.  MH

The Lady Sherlock historical mysteries by Sherry Thomas is a series of (soon to be seven) books in which Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant, driven, rule-breaking young lady poses as Sherlock Holmes. Quite happy to use the fact that women are considered inferior in Victorian society to her full advantage, Charlotte uses her “invisibility” and “frailty” to work her way into situations that would be much more dangerous and difficult if she were a man, and in doing so accesses critical information about the cases that she is investigating. Our reader tackled books five and six in the series: Murder on Cold Street, and Miss Moriarty, I Presume?, and thoroughly enjoyed this gender-flipped take on the classic Sherlock Holmes stories.  SC 

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne. Here’s a genre we don’t usually have at Nevermore:  Parenting! This book, aimed at the parents of toddlers up to teenagers, encourages parents to reduce the number of sensory distractions in their children’s lives – remove TVs, pare down the number of toys, have reliable daily rhythms (meals at the same time every day is one example), encourage open-ended and child-driven play over the use of mass manufactured toys, etc. Our reader (who has small children) found that there was a lot of very useful information in this book, and that it was presented in an accessible, logical and supportive fashion.  HM 

 

Also mentioned:

Emily’s House by Amy Belding Brown

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Walking to Wijiji by Bunny Medeiros

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes by James Acaster

Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and other Diversions by Steve Martin

A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley

Polar Exposure: An All-Women’s Expedition to the North Pole by Felicity Aston

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith

The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family by Kerri K. Greenidge

The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder by Edward Humes

Christmas at the Cat Café by Melissa Daley

Shattered by James Patterson and James O. Born

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Rewind by Allison Winn Scotch

 



Reviewed by Christy

            It's December 1999, and Frankie and Ezra are headed back to their old stomping grounds to celebrate the wedding of two college friends. But not together. They will actually be delighted if they can avoid each other for the entirety of the festivities. Ever since their messy, messy breakup on graduation day ten years prior, they each desperately try not to think of the other. When they wake up the morning of New Year's Eve in bed together and wearing wedding rings, they realize their mission to ignore each other has failed spectacularly. The clock is ticking down to ceremony time (and the new millennium!), and they would really like to figure out just exactly what went down.

            This premise sounded so fun but I have to admit the first half really dragged for me. Two people I don't know all that well (and don't particularly like) constantly sniping at each other? Not enjoyable. I debated dropping it all together, but the second half did pick up when more of their backstory was slowly revealed. Unfortunately, that couldn't save it for me. The writing was just fine but I never could get over the initial hurdle of disliking them. There’s a thin line between witty banter and sniping, and most of their interactions fell in the latter category. The bitterness made more sense as I learned more about them as a young couple but by then I literally had 11% left in the book. (Thank you, Kindle, for letting me know this!) If the book was front-loaded with this information, I might've been more understanding and empathetic to their situation from the start. As it was, there were brief glimpses of emotions I could connect to, and for those I was appreciative. But maybe the format of periodic flashbacks does this story a disservice. I think there is a better book in here somewhere, one where the readers care about the characters early on, and not when the book is almost over. But even then, I had a hard time figuring out what these people saw in each other.

            If you like the Second Chance Romance trope and a little 90s nostalgia, this may be worth checking out for you. But I think you can find more likable versions elsewhere.

 

**I received an eARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.**

Friday, January 20, 2023

A Very Typical Family by Sierra Godfrey

 



Reviewed by Kristin

Natalie Walker is carrying a lot of guilt from the last time that she saw her family. Fifteen years ago, her older siblings Jake and Lynn threw a wild, drug-filled party in their historic Santa Cruz home. Someone died, and Natalie was the one who called the police. Jake and Lynn ended up in prison for contributing to their friend’s death. Natalie left for college in Boston, and her mother did not encourage her to come home for visits.

Now Natalie has built her own life on the other side of the country. She works for an architectural firm researching historic houses, and quietly sketching. She has a best friend/roommate, is dating her friend’s brother who is also her co-worker, and is hoping for a big promotion at work.

On the same day that her boyfriend ends up getting the job she wanted, she also finds out that her mother died over two months ago. She, Jake, and Lynn are set to inherit their family home, as long as they all show up at the house in California in short order to fulfill the terms of the will.

Now that might be a little awkward.

Lynn, now working at a mortuary in New York City, arrives at the house with teenage son Kit in tow. (Surprise, Natalie, you have a nephew!) Lynn is not thrilled to see Natalie, but she agrees to all of them staying at the house as they look for their brother. Jake, Natalie discovers, worked hard through his stint in prison and now has a doctoral degree in ornithology, and has a research lab at the local college. His name is on the door, but Jake is nowhere to be found. His colleagues guard his privacy, although they understand Natalie’s desire to find her brother.

This is a debut novel from an author with more journalistic and technical writing experience than fiction. In some places this shows, as the pacing is a little rough. Natalie drives all the way from Boston to Santa Cruz, even though her employer expects her to have all the business of her mother’s death wrapped up within a couple of weeks. (Spoiler alert: she does not.) She finds her sister and nephew at the family home, moons around her brother’s hot colleague, wanders out to the beach to see if Jake is out surfing, and more, all without a sense of urgency. There is a deadline on their inheritance, and Natalie and Lynn’s actions do not seem to be hurried. Of course, Natalie and Lynn do have a lot going on in their personal lives, so I did have to give them some leniency here.

Penguin the cat wanders in and out of sight, warming my heart as I can tell that the author and the character are fellow cat lovers. He is a good traveler all the way across the country, and adapts to his new, if temporary, abode well enough. Natalie worries about him when he makes himself scarce for a few days. (Spoiler alert #2: The cat is fine. Animal lovers need not despair nor avoid this book.)

No huge plot twists or unreliable narrators here. The characters are very likeable, even cranky sister Lynn. Jake is unseen for most of the book, but eventually readers get a chance to understand his motivations for removing himself from the situation. All in all the storylines are tied up convincingly, even if a bit too pat for real life. The antagonists play their parts, stir up some tension, and are dealt with in the manner that they deserve. Very typical family? Maybe. But possibly one that could benefit from some therapy.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Nevermore: Christmas at the Cat Cafe, The Other Mrs., That Night

 


Reported by Garry

Christmas at the Cat Café by Melissa Daley is a follow-up to Molly and the Cat Café, and picks up a few months after Debbie has settled into her café and into a cozy relationship with her boyfriend. Molly, Debbie’s cat and the narrator of the series, has a new litter of rambunctious kittens to deal with, and into this idyllic setting comes the whirlwind of Linda, Debbie’s heartbroken, shopaholic sister who is dealing with an out-of-the-blue divorce. Unfortunately for Molly, Linda comes with Beau – a yippy little dog who hates cats. Our reader was all smiles reviewing this delightful, lightweight book that is as cozy as a cat purring on your lap.  MS

                                                           

The Other Mrs. is a mystery thriller by best-selling author Mary Kubica. Sadie and Will Foust are a couple of Chicago professionals who are in need of a reset, and when they inherit Will’s sister’s home (and her creepy, violent, 16-year-old daughter), they encamp to a seemingly sleepy village on an island off the coast of Maine. Things quickly go downhill when Morgan, their next-door neighbor, is murdered, and Sadie becomes the prime suspect. Kubica brings her trademark twists and turns to this nail-biter that kept our reader’s enthusiastic attention.  AH

 


That Night by Alice McDermott. “What a magnificent piece of literature!” was the summary from our reader. This novel was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Set on Long Island in the 1950s, the story surrounds Sheryl and Rick, a teenaged couple deeply in love, and also expecting a baby. Sheryl’s mother forbids her from seeing Rick, which sets off a chain of violent events that echoes down through the lives of not only the three main characters, but their entire community.  DC

 

Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston by Gerrick Kennedy is the candid, in-depth biography of one of the biggest pop stars of the last century: Whitney Houston. Too black for some, not black enough for others, too pop for some, not pop enough for others, Houston was always trying to live a life that was not her own and be the embodiment of an image that was projected onto her by those around her both personally and professionally. Kennedy peels back the layers of the forces that ultimately drove Houston to addiction and death, and argues that if she had existed in today’s society, her life-trajectory would have been considerably different. Our reader remarked not only on the meticulous research by the author, but also on his sensitive handling of the tragic life and legacy of Whitney.  KM

 

Also mentioned: 

 

Local Woman Missing by Mary Kubica

On The Rooftop by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott

How It Went by Wendell Berry

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris

The Shining by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

The American Women’s Almanac by Deborah Felder

The Churchill Sisters by Rachel Trethewey

Remainders of the Day: A Bookshop Diary by Shaun Bythell

The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks

All the Broken Places by John Boyne

Mulch Ado About Nothing by Jill Churchill

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn