Wednesday, September 28, 2011

YA books too good to miss!

Teen books aren’t just for teens anymore!  There have been a number of YA and children’s books which have attracted an adult audience:  Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and the gritty, realistic books by Ellen Hopkins. Teen Librarian Pam Neal joined the Nevermore Book to talk about some new teen books too good to miss:

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare is the first in the “Mortal Instruments” series.  Clary is an average teenager living an average life until the night she witnesses an apparent murder except that the victim disappears.  She soon discovers that she’s seeing people no one else does, and that there’s a “Shadow World” all around us.  This new urban fantasy series has fans panting for the next installment; a movie is in the works.
Themes in fiction often follow real world events.  In the last few years, the news has been dominated by the rise and fall of governments as well as questions about the relationship between government and the governed so it’s not surprising that books in which people question the status quo are filling the best seller lists.  Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has been the most successful so far, but here are two up and comers:

Divergent by Veronica Roth is set in a future society where people are divided up into factions.  At age 16, each person has to chose a faction and competes for the right to join that faction; the catch is that the person also remains there for the rest of his or her life—even if it means leaving your family behind forever.  As Beatrice struggles to find where she belongs, she also discovers that the “perfect society” may not be quite so perfect.
Can you imagine a world where love would be considered a disease?  Lauren Oliver does just that in Delirium.  Lena is perfectly content to undergo the operation that will cure her of deliria (love), and to have her occupation and husband chosen for her.  Then she meets a young man named Alex and her world will never be the same.  Oliver has won praise not just for her imaginative world, but for her lyrical writing.
Just in case futuristic societies are not your cup of tea, there’s If I Stay by Gayle Forman about a young girl who suddenly becomes aware she is watching the aftermath of a horrific car accident—and she is one of the victims.  While her body remains in a coma, Mia considers her options and remembers her life with her family while she tries to decide if she wants to live or die.
Another member of Nevermore wanted to recommend some “children’s books” which adults love too.  Goodnight, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian tells the story of a young Londoner evacuated to the English countryside in the days before World War II.  Willie is a shy child, abused by his mother who is at first bewildered and overwhelmed by his new situation.  As he gradually bonds with his new guardian, Mr. Tom, he begins to blossom and Mr. Tom grows to love his charge.  After Willie is sent back to London, Mr. Tom becomes increasingly concerned when he doesn’t hear from the child.  Magorian does a wonderful job of portraying the relationship between a gruff old man and a frightened child as well as depicting England in the late 1930s.
There are a number of other wonderful children’s/YA books out there and we’ll spotlight some in future posts.  In the meantime, just ask Pam for other recommendations!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Koala of Death by Betty Webb

Reviewed by Jeanne
The second book in the delightful Gunn Zoo series opens with Theodora “Teddy” Bentley finding a body floating in the harbor near her boat, the Merilee.  The situation only gets worse when she realizes that she knows the dead woman:  it’s one of her fellow zoo keepers, Kate Nido, who does as TV segment as Koala Kate.  Kate had been attending a party on another boat the night before, so Teddy’s first assumption is that Kate had a bit too much to drink and fell overboard.  The coroner soon decrees that theory wrong:  Kate was strangled and died before she went into the water. As it turns out, Kate had a nose for gossip and could wield a mean keyboard with a blog filled with innuendo.  Now the list of suspects starts to add up, and there are a number of Teddy’s friends and coworkers on the list: Outback Bill, an Aussie zookeeper who was Kate’s boyfriend before someone dumped someone; Robin Chase, the big cat keeper who doesn’t like Teddy; Sam and Doris Grimaldi, the party’s hosts and zoo supporters who may have something to hide; Speaks With Spirits, a so-called “pet psychic;” and just maybe Cleo, Teddy’s mother. 
Teddy, in addition to trying to solve the mystery, is called on to take over Koala Kate’s weekly liveTV segment featuring animals from the zoo and a TV anchorwoman with an apparent inability to follow instructions such as “Don’t touch the animals.”  Teddy’s boyfriend, Sheriff Joe Rejas, takes a very dim view of Teddy’s investigations, putting a little strain on the relationship.
Sometimes second books in a series disappoint.  The novelty has worn off: the exotic setting isn’t so exotic, the characters a bit less sparkling.  I’m very happy to report this is not the case here.  I enjoyed this outing just as much as the first.  Again we are introduced to the habits of several different fascinating creatures in a non-tutorial manner.  Koalas take center stage, as you might guess, and little Wanchu almost steals the show.  One other point I have to mention:  Teddy still goes back and visits Lucy the anteater, animal star of the first book.  I know that’s a minor point, but it’s a pet peeve—no pun intended—of mine, when a character meets a new person or animal, seems extremely fond of same, and next book has totally forgotten about that new BFF or else mentions same just in passing.  Teddy is loyal. I like that in a person.  She has several other fine traits too,including her love for animals and her job.  Webb doesn’t glamorize the zookeeper’s life:  overworked, underpaid, dealing with animals who could injure or kill at any time, cleaning up waste, and  sheer hard labor. It isn’t all cuddling koalas, folks.
I also like the relationship between Teddy and Joe.  While there is a bit of strain over criminal investigation, there isn’t that sense of manufactured drama some writers employ over and over in an artificial effort to create tension. 
While I would classify these as “light mysteries” since there is not a great deal of Serious Social Commentary or Deep Psychological Analysis, I found them both entertaining and educational about animals. There are some really funny scenes in the book, but it isn’t silly or slapstick. The characters are well done; Webb avoids the easy stereotypes and manages to surprise us, just as people do in real life.  
You don’t need to have read Anteater of Death to enjoy this one.   Me, I’m already looking forward to the next in the series, The Llama of Death

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

 Reviewed by Jeanne
John Holloway is a space age prospector, working on the planet Zarathustra.  More specifically, he’s an independent contractor working more or less on his own for ZaraCorp, seeking out valuable mineral deposits to exploit. John’s one of those guys who just loves to push the envelope—and to push his boss’s buttons, so it’s probably just as well that he prefers to work alone.  Just as John is fired—again—he discovers an incredibly valuable seam of gems in a cliff he’s just destroyed by accident.  He’s immediately rehired and plans are being made to extract the gems.
Then John discovers something else.
Something alive. . .
Something furry and cute. . .
Something that might be a sentient being.
Something that could be a big problem, since ZaraCorp’s licenses specify they can work only on planets without sentient life forms. 
As John becomes more and more convinced that the Fuzzies are indeed intelligent beings, ZaraCorp becomes more and more determined to preserve its claim, even if it means eradicating the Fuzzies.
If this plot sounds familiar, it may be that you have encountered the Fuzzies before. In 1962, H. Beam Piper published a book called Little Fuzzy which was the inspiration for this book by Scalzi, who took the story, updated it a bit and made some changes in characters and events.  He gives full credit to Piper for the inspiration.  Scalzi is a well known science fiction writer in his own right, and one of many who have loved the Fuzzy stories through the years.  Piper himself wrote two and part of a third before his death; other authors have picked up the Fuzzy tales through the years.
I had read those books as well as Piper’s and have enjoyed them all.  I also like Scalzi’s version.  His Holloway isn’t a grizzled prospector but a young man with a yen for a certain xenobiologist (who dumped him) and a somewhat checkered past which included a stint as a lawyer.  (The latter comes in very handy during one of the best courtroom scenes I’ve read outside of Perry Mason.) The Fuzzies are as enchanting as ever, and some of the questions the story raises are perhaps even timelier.  It’s a light, fun read (despite one terrible incident) that will have you laughing, crying and cheering.  Even if you don’t think you like science fiction, give Fuzzy Nation a try.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, September 16, 2011

She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems; and Good Poems

Reviewed by Jeanne
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spent the last several years of her life working as a book editor, bringing to print such books as The Wedding by Dorothy West and Dancing on My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland.  John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage.  Daughter Caroline Kennedy has followed in her parents’ literary footsteps by writing and editing a number of books.  Her most recent is She Walks in Beauty:  A Woman’s Journey Through Poems.  The title comes, of course, from the famous poem by Lord Byron:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Most people remember the first four lines, or else the first verse; but I'm ashamed to admit I'd forgotten the rest.  It was a bit like revisiting a place you thought you knew well and suddenly realizing how lovely it is. There are a lot of "old chestnuts" that we take for granted, in part because they were required in school, and don't take the time to reread as an adult to see why these poems (or novels or stories or whatever) have stood the test of time. 

I'll apologize in advance because I'm about to climb on a soapbox here.  Sometimes literature, like fashion, goes through fads.  Certain poetic styles go out of fashion, superseded by new techniques; or certain poets become passe. For example, Rudyard Kipling was lionized in his lifetime, only to be thoroughly disparaged after his death.  Now people are re-evaluating his contribution and deciding that perhaps he wasn't too bad after all.  Other writers were dismissed during their lifetimes, but somehow their work has lasted through the years.  For me, that's the key:  no matter if some feel the phrases are hackneyed or too sentimental or the rhyme scheme is off or the work is too commercial, these are the works that meant something to a lot of people, that evoked emotion from the readers.  Poetry IS emotion.

This isn’t to dismiss the craftsmanship and artistry behind more “literary” poems.  Those impart a different sort of pleasure, an intellectual delight. I’m just saying there is a place for both and both can be appreciated.  I feel that too much analysis can sometimes drain the joy right out of poetry, making people believe that it's dull and boring.  Far from it!  Poetry has been the medium of handing down history, of rousing men for battle, of lulling children to sleep, evoking laughter and tears.

Hopping off the soapbox and getting back to the review now!

The book is divided up thematically (Falling In Love, Breaking Up, Marriage, Growing Up and Growing Old, etc.)  Kennedy introduces each section with a brief essay, sometimes explaining why certain poems were chosen and explaining the intent of each section.
The poems are a good mix of old standards by authors such as Christiana Rossetti, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Donne, and Anne Sexton along lesser known poets and poems.   All are accessible.  You’ll meet a lot of old friends and make some new ones with this collection—I know I did.

I also  wanted to put in a plug for Good Poems, selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor.  I enjoyed listening to his "Writer's Almanac" when it ran on WETS and was familiar with some of his other poetry collections.  Like Caroline Kennedy's book, this volume is divided up thematically.  I do like that in a poetry collection which I'm reading for pleasure.  Many such today are divided up by poet or by region.  As with Kennedy, Keillor mixes selections from old standbys with those from newer poets.  It's a wonderful browser's book, and Keillor has a good eye and ear for selecting poems.

Last but not least, American Folk Poetry:  An Anthology is a wonderful collection of poems, songs, ballads, hymns and other forms of popular verse.  It's one of those oldie but goodie books.  You'll find old favorites as well as some which were known only in certain regions.  Some are "true events" ballads such as "Legend of Jesse James," while others express universal emotions or beliefs.  Most are by that most prolific of authors, Anonymous.  It's a book I go back to again and again.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Reviewed by Nancy

After living in England for twenty years, author Bill Bryson moved with his family to a small town in New Hampshire. There he noticed a path that disappeared into the woods at the edge of town, and upon learning from signage that this was the famed Appalachian Trail, Mr. Bryson became enamored with the idea of hiking said famed trail. He could not shake the idea, so he gave into it.
Oh, he was excited. He told his wife, his publisher, his friends and acquaintances. It was only after this initial flurry of expectation that he began to do research and found out what he might really be in for.
Let me tell you something about Bill Bryson. He is funny. I don't mean just run of the mill funny like the preacher in your church or your Uncle Harry who could tell a good story. Or funny like your cousin Edward who's quick with puns and gags. I mean FUNNY. I mean this guy could write an essay about litter control or insurance regulations and have you laughing your head off. He could write about anything and render it entertainingly.
Therefore, the story of this soft in the flesh, city-boy writer hiking the Appalachian Trail proves to be rich fodder. Before hiking the trail Mr. Bryson consulted and interviewed others who had done so. Hearing their tales of terror and deprivation he imagined all the things that might go wrong, including the wild animals one might encounter, ranging from deadly snakes to scalp snatching hoot owls to sofa-sized boars.
His musings cover a litany of diseases one might contract in that wilderness. I am familiar with some of the possibilities Mr. Bryson lists, and, being prone to hypochondria, have even feared at times that I might have one or another of them. Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever...  I have fixated on and manifested false symptoms of these diseases, buy what in the blue eyed world is giardiasis? Or shigellosis? I don't dare look them up, or I might begin to display the symptoms. I don't know what schistosomiasis is, and I hope I never find out. I sincerely pray I am never required to have a conversation with a medical professional regarding this disease, ailment, parasite, chronic condition, or whatever it is.
Mr. Bryson also touches on the possibility of being incinerated by lightning strikes or done in by foul play administered by other humans, but after bumping through his listing of diseases these eventualities did not much impact my psyche.
I believe it was when he began his study of equipment that Mr. Bryson was struck by  the true enormity of his undertaking. As he put it, he "ended up with enough equipment to bring full employment to a vale of sherpas."  The problem with this was that he was going to need to carry all this stuff by himself. The purchase of the equipment did not include sherpas.
There were many shocks during the equipment purchase foray. Some of the shocks had to do with the fact that at various moments the author had no idea what the salesman was talking about. Others had to do with the price of the items. Perhaps the ultimate shock hit when he discovered that the darn expensive backpack he had chosen did not come with straps. The straps had to be purchased separately.
When he saw the pile of equipment he would be required to carry on his back, Mr. Bryson understood why the salesman had dwelled so much on the weight of the individual items. The author had maintained a somewhat cavalier attitude towards weight during the selection process, but understood the importance of an extra ounce or two per item once he saw all the equipment gathered into one place.
After this preparation, Mr. Bryson settled down to wait out the long winter months, planning to begin his journey in the spring. During many sleepless nights he pondered the possibilities of breaking an ankle, falling off a rock ledge, having a heart attack, or encountering an ax-wielding madman in the wilderness, and realized that he really, really, really didn't want to make this trip alone. What if he was OUT THERE ALL BY HIMSELF and he had a stroke? or a heart attack? or a bear attack?
The problem then became, who would go with him? Whom did he know who could drop whatever it was they were doing and go along with him? After months of casual invitations Mr. Bryson began to despair. Everyone he knew seemed to be busy. Everyone, that is, except his college friend Stephen Katz who gave the author a call in late February to ask if he might be the one to come along.
So, let us ponder this for a moment. If Mr. Stephen Katz is available, at the ripe age of forty, to drop everything and go for an extended jaunt through the wilderness, is he available because he is fabulously successful, independently wealthy, and eager for new challenge and adventure? Or is he available because he is a low achiever with no direction, no ambition, and absolutely nothing else to do?
I will not spoil this surprise for you. You must read the book to find out. Get the tissues ready, for you will weep with laughter.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Raven Report: Is the Past Ever Past?

The August 23, 2011 Nevermore Book Club Meeting
Reported by Susan

Down Cut Shin Creek: the Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt, is a fun book that captures the experiences of real librarians of the 1930’s in the backwoods of Kentucky.   This generously illustrated book captures Depression era Appalachia.  The WPA was a government backed program designed to rebuild the country and give people a chance to work.  Local Kentucky women were paid a meager salary to take books into isolated mountain areas. 

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart is a wonderful book that captures the hearts and views of the average American at the beginning of the Civil War.  Black.  White.  Slave and free man.  This is a real snapshot of the country at that time.  A very fitting book since this is the Sesquicentennial   of the Civil War.
Unbroken: a WW II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.  While researching her earlier book,Seabiscuit, the author kept coming across the story of Louis Zamperini.  He was a 1936 Olympian who joined the air force in WWII.  His plane crashed into the Pacific where he became a POW of the Japanese.  Almost dead at war’s end, he struggled to make a life and had the courage to live it to its fullest.
Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O’Brien is the true story of Louisa Adams before she became First Lady to President John Quincy Adams.  It relates a segment of her life while visiting Russia and Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.  
The Nevermore Book Club meets every Tuesday at 11:00 A.M.  Join us if you like to talk about what you've read and enjoy book recommendations!  There is free coffee and doughnuts provided by the fabulous Blackbird Bakery!