Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Books

Most of the Christmas books we remember fondly tend to be children’s books or else short stories like “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry.  Some authors have started doing a book at Christmas, and fans look forward to these every year.  Here are some popular Christmas selections:

The late Thomas Kinkade lent his name to the “Cape Light” books with author Katherine Spencer. All the books are set in a fictional New England town, and are inspirational and uplifting. You don’t have to read them in order to enjoy them.

Anne Perry is best known for her two mystery series, but for several years she’s produced a book with a Christmas theme set in Victorian England.  These are shorter mysteries, just right to squeeze in while trying to get ready for the holidays.  This year’s book is A Christmas Garland, set in 1857 India where a young and inexperienced British lieutenant is supposed to defend a fellow soldier against a charge of being an accomplice to a murder and the escape of a prisoner.

Debbie Macomber has several Christmas themed books, including Christmas at Cedar Cove.  While her books set in Cedar Cove are probably her most famous, she’s also known for her Christmas books featuring the angels Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy. The most recent one in that series is Angels At the Table.

Donna VanLiere has a number of fiction books to her credit, but the ones most often requested are her Christmas books.  Christmas Shoes,  Christmas Blessing, and Christmas Hope have been made into TV movies; Christmas Secret is tentatively scheduled for 2013.

Richard Paul Evans self published The Christmas Box back in 1993.  It became a local hit, and was then brought out by a major publisher, becoming the first of several best-selling books from Evans. Most have a Christmas theme, and several have been filmed.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Our Favorite Things: Christmas Books

Selena:  I’m reading The Twelve Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen and I’m loving it! There is something wonderful about reading a good Christmas mystery or a Christmas love story—or even better, both! I have missed the last two in her “Royal Spyness” series but I am really enjoying this one. Small village, cozy English Christmas, lots of ( accidental) deaths and a cousin to the King. With silly Americans in attendance, too.  I can't wait to see what happens. I’d just keep reading if my children didn't need to be fed!

Janice: Three from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes is a wonderful book. It’s a novel about the “lost years” of Jesus’ life.  It’s a sequel to Two From Galilee, which is about Mary and Joseph.  I also pick the poem  The Night before Christmas  because I had to memorize it in school!

Jeanne:  Last year I read a delightful collection of science fiction/ fantasy Christmas stories and novellas by Connie Willis entitled Miracle and Other Christmas Stories.  Willis has a sharp wit, a vivid imagination, and strong opinions, which I found delightful.  In the title story, she makes an argument for “Miracle on 34th Street” over “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a better movie while producing a story that would make a great movie itself.  There’s also a murder mystery set in an English country house, a bit of Christmas horror, and Willis’ recommendations for Christmas books and movies.

I also still enjoy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.  I can never forget those Herdmans!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Our Favorite Things: Christmas Movies

Pam:  I enjoy “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” My husband and I saw it in the theater when it first came out and it’s now a family tradition to watch it on Christmas Eve.  Part of the reason is that my husband WAS Clark Griswold, just ask anybody.

I also like “A Christmas Story.”  I have a replica of the lamp at my house.

Brenda:  “Christmas Vacation” for me, too!  But I also love “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It’s just part of Christmas.

Judy:  “Christmas Vacation," because it always makes me laugh.”

Jeanne:  I don’t have a real favorite, but there are several I like, including “A Nightmare Before Christmas.”  I just saw “We’re No Angels” with Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Rey, Peter Ustinov, and Leo G. Carroll which is about three escaped prisoners who are trying to get aboard a ship away from Devil’s Island just before Christmas.  They decide to hide out in a shop owned by a sweet but hapless (and somewhat clueless) family and the prisoners take an interest in dealing out a bit of justice.  It’s never too saccharine and I found it pretty funny.  I like Humphrey Bogart, and he seems to be enjoying himself in this movie.  He didn’t do many comedies and sometimes seemed ill at ease in the ones he did, but he appeared to be having a good time in this one.

Laura:  I guess my first choice would be “Christmas Vacation,” but I also like “Elf.”  “A Christmas Story” is good, too.

Laurie:  My favorite Christmas movie is “Christmas in Connecticut,” the 1945 version. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as a newspaper columnist who writes about living on a farm with her husband and baby, and who provides very popular recipes.  In reality, she’s a single girl who lives in New York and she gets the recipes from a chef friend.  Trouble starts when her publisher wants to bring guests to her farmhouse.  It’s a wonderful romantic comedy with a great cast, including Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet. My daughter loves it now because her husband’s in the Navy and Dennis Morgan plays a sailor.

Selena: Oh, there are so many good ones!  It’s hard to choose, especially when it comes to old movies.  One of my favorites is The Shop Around the Corner with Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart.  It takes place in a store where Jimmy is the head clerk and Margaret is a new shop girl.  They hate each other, they think, but they’ve each been writing back and forth to a mystery person who seems just perfect.  It’s so romantic and it’s set at Christmas.  It was remade as a musical with Judy Garland and later as You’ve Got Mail—if you watch that movie, you’ll see that Meg Ryan’s store is named “The Shop Around the Corner.”  I also like The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven.  Oh, and I can't leave out
  Bachlelor Mother. I love it with Ginger Rogers and David Niven. I also like the remake with Debbie Renyolds and Eddie Fisher but it makes me sad to think she was pregnant with Carrie at the time and they seem so happy and then what happened later. But Bachelor Mother is one of the ones that i can watch anytime of the year and love.

Ashley: Okay, you may not think it’s a Christmas movie but my favorite is “Die Hard.”  It’s not a happy Christmas movie, but it does take place at Christmas!  I also love “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Christie H.:  I like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  I like sappy stuff, and I like Jimmy Stewart.  I also like the Jim Carrey “Christmas Carol.”

Janice: My favorite is "White Christmas" It has it all!  Great entertainers like Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, wonderful music, classic songs, romance, and Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Our Favorite Christmas Things: TV

Judy:  One of my favorite Christmas programs is “The Littlest Angel.” It was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production in 1969 and starred Johnny Whitaker from “Family Affair” and Fred Gwynne who was Herman Munster.  The show was based on the book by Charles Tazewell about a little angel boy who is having trouble adjusting to heaven.  He wants to be good and do things the right way, but he’s still very much a little boy. Finally he’s allowed to go back to Earth to get his box of treasures, a collection of odds and ends that he picked up such as a robin’s egg or a pretty stone. I haven’t seen it in awhile, but it’s still a favorite.

Christie:  I’ll pick the same show I picked last year, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  It’s a tradition!  It has all the right elements, including that wonderful jazzy music.

Janice H.: My favorite is "The Night the Animals Talked." It's about the legend that on the night Jesus was born, the animals in the stable were given the gift of speech. It hasn't been shown many times, but I certainly remember it.

Jeanne:  I wrote about “Amahl and the Night Visitors” last year, so this year I’ll pick “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” which premiered when I was six, probably the perfect age for it to make a big impression. A close second would be “The Little Drummer Boy,” both of which used stop motion animation.I really liked Greer Garson's narration of the latter.  I also like versions of “A Christmas Carol,” especially the one with George C. Scott and the animated Mr. Magoo. A quick check of Wikipedia claims that Magoo was the first animated special made just for television. It’s going to air on NBC on Saturday, December 22 at 8 pm.  This will mark the program’s 50th anniversary. Then there were the old Johnny Cash and June Carter Christmas specials.  There were two I remember especially, one with the Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson) in Switzerland which was very funny, and of course I loved the one filmed at the Carter Fold. (Note:  the library has two of these Christmas Specials on DVD.)

Brenda:  My favorite to watch with kids is “Annabelle’s Wish.”  It’s about a little calf named Annabelle who can talk. She becomes friends with Billy, the farmer’s grandson who can’t speak. It’s sweet and the kids really love it. (Note from Rebecca: “To watch with kids?  She just likes to watch it herself!”)

Nicki: Don’t laugh, but in Sweden we all watch Donald Duck. It’s a tradition! On December 24, at 3 pm, they always run a long Donald Duck cartoon and just about everybody watches, because we all grew up watching it at the same time every year. (Note: For more information, read the special post on Nicki’s Swedish Christmas traditions!)

Ashley:  I love “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but the animated version not the live action movie.  I love the book, too. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

God Jul!

Stockholm: Image credit Ola Ericson/
 From Nicki:

I grew up in Sweden, where the traditions are a little different in some ways, but mostly it was a time for family to be together. Christmas is Jul so "Merry Christmas" is God Jul. We celebrate on Christmas Eve. The things I remember best are dancing around the Christmas tree.  We ate nuts, fruit and candy, and drank glogg in the evenings. Glogg is a sort of hot spiced wine.  We lit candles. We ate egg toddy in front of the fireplace.  There was a big family dinner, a julbord which means “Christmas table.”  That’s a smorgasbord with traditional Christmas dishes, like herring, ham, cheese, potatoes,gravad lax, meatballs, and prinskorv, which is sort of like a delicate little hot dog. There are lots of other foods, but those are the main ones.  One of the big things was doppa i grytan, which is dipping chunks of hard bread into the juices from the ham broth. We drank julmust, which is a Christmas soda. My mother made ours, but you can buy a non-alcoholic version at the store but just at Christmas. It’s a little like root beer in taste.

We also got to light tomtebloss, sparklers, while we sat at the fireplace.

Swedish decorations.  Note the traditional goat.  Image credited to: Helena Wahlman/

At 3 pm, most people settle down to watch a Donald Duck cartoon. Don’t laugh, it’s a modern tradition!  On December 24, about 3 pm, they always run a long Donald Duck cartoon. When I was growing up, there weren’t many cartoons on TV.  They did run them during the Christmas holidays when the kids were off from school, so I’d get up early to watch them.  The Donald Duck special is something just about everybody watches, because we all grew up watching it at the same time every year.  There’s an article about it here:

Presents were brought by the tomten,  who is a sort of Christmas elf or gnome.  He comes on Christmas Eve about 4 pm because it’s already dark then.  He doesn’t come down the chimney—he comes right to the door! His helpers are called tomtenisse.
Glogg.  Image credit: Helena Wahlman/

If you want to make your own glogg, there is a recipe here:

Image credit:  Lola Akinmade Åkerström/

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Story of the Other Wise Man

Chosen by Doris

When I was teaching school we had in our curriculum a novella we used near the Christmas break. I had never heard of the small book until the first year I was to teach it.  It became a story I looked forward to more and more each year:  The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke

“You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they travelled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem. But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it, yet did not arrive with his brethren in the presence of the young child Jesus? Of the great desire of this fourth pilgrim, and how it was denied, yet accomplished in the denial; of his many wanderings and the probations of his soul; of the long way of his seeking and the strange way of his finding the One whom he sought--I would tell the tale as I have heard fragments of it in the Hall of Dreams, in the palace of the Heart of Man.” –Henry Van Dyke

This is the introduction from the book The Story of the Other Wise Man which tells the story of Artaban and his journey seeking the Christ Child. As trials and tribulations occur and his path seems to take him further from his goal, Artaban feels he has lost his chance with Jesus. Yet, along the way he acts with the pure heart and great love Jesus asks of us all. An extension of the story of the Magi, this heartwarming story is perfect for the Christmas season.

"I do not know where this little story came from--out of the air, perhaps. One thing is certain, it is not written in any other book, nor is it to be found among the ancient lore of the East. And yet I have never felt as if it were my own. It was a gift, and it seemed to me as if I knew the Giver."--Henry Van Dyke

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Favorite Christmas Things: Songs

Ramblings by Jeanne

With the holiday season breathing down our necks—er, fast approaching, it’s time to stop, take a deep breath, and remember some of the things we like about the holidays.  It’s not going to be the rushing, the rowdy crowds, the cleaning, or the pressure to buy gifts, mail cards, and clean.  (Yes, I did say list “clean” twice. I could list it a dozen times and it still is not going to happen at my house unless those elves decide they’re tired of the toy biz and want to try maid service instead.  I’ll provide the cookies and milk!)

Back to happier subjects. One of the things I enjoy most about Christmas is the music.  Mostly I enjoy old favorites but a few newer songs have crept in over the years.  Here are ten of my favorite songs, in no particular order:

“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” was written by Johnny Marks, the same man who wrote the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  (The story was written by Marks’ brother in law Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward.) It was originally recorded by the Quinto Sisters but I first heard the Burl Ives version which was part of the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” TV special.  Numerous folk have recorded it, but my favorite versions are by Ives and Alan Jackson.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was a huge hit for Bing Crosby and is still associated with him. It came out in 1943 and was a favorite of both the American troops and those they left behind.  This lovely, melancholy song is one I pause and listen to no matter who the singer.  There are many fine versions by both male and female singers; Martina McBride did a very nice one on her Christmas album. I don’t think I would have chosen this as a favorite a few years ago but as I get older and it becomes harder for family and friends to get together, this song becomes a poignant reminder of how much we take for granted.

“The Little Drummer Boy” is another one I think I first saw with the animated TV show.  The song was originally called “The Carol of the Drum” and was written by Katherine Kennicott Davis, an American classical composer.  The Von Trapp Family Singers (yes, THOSE Von Trapps!) recorded it very early.  I don’t have a particular favorite singer on this one, but I’ve most often been asked about the Bing Crosby/ David Bowie duet, which is indeed a very fine version.

“Pretty Paper” by Willie Nelson always makes me think of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen, a story I cried over many times as a child.  Nelson’s song captures the bustle of the season as well as the sadness.  It’s not a particularly popular choice, perhaps because it’s not a song where everything comes right in the end.  The shoppers still rush by, leaving the man to try to sell his “pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue/wrap your presents to your darling from you/pretty pencils to write I love you.” Roy Orbison had the first hit with this song, and I’ve heard it by others, but I still favor Willie’s version.

“Christmas Cookies”
by George Strait is just a fun song.  The only problem is that I start craving cookies after I hear it. With frosting.  And sprinkles.  Wouldn’t hurt to have George there, either.

“Santa Baby” is a song I didn’t quite get as a child but now I find very funny and always gets my feet moving.  I know others have sung it, but for me Eartha Kitt OWNS that song. It was written in 1953 by Joan Javits and Tony Springer.

“We Three Kings”
is certainly one of my favorites, but it isn’t recorded as often as some carols. I’m still searching for the perfect version, but two artists come close:  Dolly Parton and John Berry. Berry’s version actually had three singers:  Berry, Kenny Rogers, and Billy Dean.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by Noel Regney and Gloira Shayne in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a plea for peace.  It’s an amazing song which always draws my attention, no matter the singer. 

 “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith.  It’s a lively song, a bit romantic (providing you go with the original lyrics about Parson Brown and not the later circus clown) and is just plain fun.  Dean Martin did a fine version as have many other people.  It’s also a song that lends itself to parody.  Let’s just say that Bob Rivers’ version made me laugh until I cried.

“Mary Did You Know?” was on Kathy Mattea’s “Good News” Christmas album which came out in 1993.  Simple and heartfelt, it made a big impression and remains my favorite version.

If anyone else has a favorite, please chime in below!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Nevermore: The Queen, A Dog and the Life of Pi

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn imagines what would happen if Queen Elizabeth II decided to slip out of the castle and go incognito among her subjects.  The monarch has been a little blue, thinking about all the things the government has been taking away, how the family firm has had a rough patch, etc. She makes a spur of the moment decision to visit her former yacht, Britannia, which is moored in Edinburgh.  How the Queen ends up in a skull and crossbones hoodie in the company of a stable girl and an Indian cheese shop employee while being trailed by a frantic staff makes, according to Jud, for a delightful excursion.  The book has been compared to that wonderful Alan Bennett novel The Uncommon Reader.  It’s highly recommended.


The Life of Pi by Yann Martel has become a popular book with the release of the movie of the same name.  Pi Patel is the son of a zookeeper who sets out on an ocean voyage to transport a number of the zoo animals to a new home in Canada.  Along the way the ocean liner sinks, leaving Pi on a life boat with a few of the animals—including a tiger. The book can be read both as a straight adventure story and as a fable/allegory. Some Nevermore members had already seen the movie and recommended it.

Another unusual circumstance is the basis for the inspirational novel The Dog That Talked to God by Jim Kraus.  After the death of her husband and son, Mary adopts a Miniature Schnauzer she names Rufus as a companion.  One evening Mary asks a question aloud and Rufus answers her.  It turns out that Rufus also talks to God and through his canine nativity offers Mary a different perspective on life.  It was recommended for people who like dog stories, although the reviewer thought the dog could have been in it a bit more.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Smokey: The True Story Behind the University of Tennessee’s Beloved Mascot by Thomas J. Mattingly and Earl C. Hudson

Reviewed by Jeanne

When I saw there was a new book out about Smokey, the University of Tennessee’s Bluetick Hound mascot, I thought, “About time!” For fans of the University of Tennessee football, there’s one team member who never disappoints:  Smokey, the Bluetick Coonhound who has been the symbol of the Vols since 1953.  Even if the game isn’t going the right way, there’s always Smokey to watch for on the sidelines, his bay soaring about the noise of the crowd.

The Smokeys aren’t just window-dressing either. They’ve actually been a part of the action at times.  Just ask Alabama.

The choice of a Bluetick hound seems obvious now, but for awhile there was a strong move to have a Tennessee Walking Horse as the mascot. Tom Siler, the UT Alumni president at the time, worried that a hound dog would just reinforce the idea that Tennessee was a “hillbilly school.”

But the Pep Club voted for the hound, and soon there was a contest to select the very first mascot.  The winner was “Blue Smokey,” a fine purebred Bluetick owned by Rev. Bill Brooks.  It was the start of a tradition that has seen Smokey become one of the best known school mascots.  You can buy Smokey backpacks, Christmas ornaments, flags and large inflatables.  When Mattingly and Hudson brought Smokey to the campus bookstore for a “paw-tograph” session, the lines were out the door.

However, Smokey: The True Story Behind the University of Tennessee’s Beloved Mascot by Thomas J. Mattingly and Earl C. Hudson is more than the story of the dog who represents the Vols; it’s also a good brief history of the Tennessee football program from the 50s onward.  I found it very informative, and gave me some insight into the people I knew primarily as names on buildings, not to mention some of the fan rituals.

I will confess that I was more interested in the Smokeys, though.  There have been ten dogs to serve as mascots, with Smokey X being introduced just this year.  The Smokeys have all been family dogs, too, though they aren’t all from the same bloodline.  They’ve had their share of adventure—one Smokey was dognapped by Kentucky fans—and have delighted fans for generations. As the book points out, there are many dogs who have represented sports teams, from the bulldogs at Georgia and Mississippi State to Jonathan the UConn husky, but in all of sports there is just one Bluetick Coonhound:  Smokey of Tennessee.

This book would be a great introduction to Tennessee football for a new fan wanting to learn more about the grand traditions of the Vols.  I will admit, however, that I was just a bit disappointed that there weren’t more pictures of Smokey.  I certainly understand why photos of early Smokeys might not have been available, but certainly there should be plenty of the more recent incarnations. Truth to tell, I was probably a bit spoiled by Damn Good Dogs by Sonny Seiler & Kent Hannon, which is a tribute to Uga and is filled with pages of photos to delight a dog-lover’s heart—even if that dog lover isn’t a Georgia fan. I thought Smokey deserved a book just as colorful.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nevermore: DNA, Top Ten Books, Joy of Drinking & Botany

The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes caused quite a stir when it was published back in 2002.  Using genetic analysis, he postulated that all humans descended from one of seven “clan mothers.” Now Sykes has a new book, DNA USA.  Since the United States is one of the most genetically diverse countries, Sykes was curious to see how the various lines appeared in a modern population and how that matches us with the way the individuals identify themselves.  For example, some Spanish Catholics were found to have some Jewish ancestors while European DNA was apparently introduced to some Native American tribes as far back as 10,000 years.  Our reviewer is finding it a fascinating book.

Have you ever wondered what books your favorite author would choose? You may find the answer in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, edited by J. Peder Zane.  Zane asked 125 well-known authors to name their favorite ten books. Those responding included Lee Smith, Stephen King, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon and Alexander McCall Smith.  Zane provides plot descriptions of the books in a separate section, listing the authors who selected each title.  Some author even provided insights on a particular choice, such as Louis Rubin’s appreciation of Eudora Welty’s short stories.

The Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland is a history of distillation as only Holland can provide.  The facts are all there but it’s the author’s voice that makes them memorable.  Two reviewers praised the book for its humor and wit, and intend to read more of Holland’s work.

Michael Pollan is well known for his books about food such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  In The Botany of Desire, he examines how four plants (tulips, marijuana, apples, and potatoes) have fueled four human desires (beauty, intoxication, sweetness and control).  He demonstrates how humans and plants have evolved a relationship of mutual benefit through the centuries. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet

Reviewed by Jeanne

The village of Nether Monkslip has been all atwitter after the arrival of their new vicar, Max Tudor.  Not only is he good looking and quite eligible, it’s rumored that he has a past that involved MI5.  However, the main concern at the moment is the Harvest Fayre, a major fund raiser sponsored by the church’s Women’s Institute and is being run with an iron hand by Wanda Batton-Smythe.  Wanda is a take-charge person who believes that nothing can be accomplished without her—not that she does any of the actual work.  She delegates all the tasks and then of course finds the work not up to standard.

Obnoxious as she is, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when her body is found in the Village Hall under suspicious circumstances. Max finds himself having to deal with a situation of the sort he thought he’d left far behind.
This is another of those books that seemed to appear out of nowhere and swoop up accolades and bouquets.  It was described as a delightful British cozy; while I like that genre, it didn’t prompt me to rush right out and read it.  I think it just sounded a little too cozy somehow. Really, a vicar who is a former MI5 agent?

Fortunately, I did pick up the book and start to read.  Malliet had me from the first page, when Wanda takes charge of the Women’s Institute meeting and her captive audience members are all wishing themselves elsewhere, sitting on something other than the orange plastic chairs that “might have been rejects from an ergonomics study.”  The neat turns of phrase continued, much to the consternation of friends who had to listen to me read them aloud.  (I especially liked the one in which a woman is offered a book of dubious literary value and regards it as if she were “Queen Victoria being handed a pamphlet on early contraceptive techniques.”) While the characters are somewhat eccentric, they aren’t totally over the top.  I also had visions of the vicar being a James Bond sort, too smooth and too sophisticated for the setting.  Instead the characterizations are all a bit more nuanced than that, making the characters more believable without losing the sense of slight exaggeration and fun. Max, it turns out, was indeed an agent, one who walked away from that life and toward something in which he could believe.  Max is religious but doesn’t feel he has all the answers for either his congregation or himself; nor is he particularly denominational, despite being an Anglican priest.  It was a choice inspired by a relative who was a nun, not from any specific call.

There are several other memorable villagers, including Awena Owen who runs the local New Age shop and who thinks Max is far too other-worldly and not nearly practical enough; Miss Agnes Pitchford, the retired school teacher who knows everybody’s business; and Major Batton-Smythe, Wanda’s somewhat bewildered and blustery husband.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this book very much, and more for the author’s way with a line than the mystery.  Not that the mystery was bad, mind you; but it’s easier to find a decently plotted mystery than it is to find one that’s so entertaining.  There’s a second book in the series, Fatal Winter, out and I have it on reserve.  I don’t think it can possibly be as much fun to read, but I’m certainly willing to be proven wrong.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Reviewed by Holly White

What would you do if you had more than one chance to live a single day?  What things would you do differently, and what things would you do the same?  Who would you spend time with?  Who would you kiss?  What would you change about your life?

High school student Samantha Kingston enjoys being part of the in-crowd.  She hangs out with popular friends, and has a hot boyfriend.  Basically, as far as the high school world goes, she has it made—until Friday, February 12, when she is killed after a party.

And that is where the story really begins.

The morning after her death, Samantha wakes up to find that she is stuck in time.  It is Friday morning again.  She has a chance to relive that day but that night, she dies again.  And then she awakens to Friday yet again.  In a story reminiscent of the Groundhog Day movie, Samantha has to relive that day over and over, only in her case, it’s her last day.  And in the process, she learns that different decisions each day lead to different consequences.

Before I Fall was well-characterized, but I must say that at first Samantha and her friends were so selfish and arrogant that I almost put the book down.   I stuck with it, however, and in the end I couldn’t have put it down if I’d wanted to.  As Samantha continued reliving that day, she began to make better choices … sometimes, that is.  The experience of reliving each day changes her which in turn changes those around her. Various people in the story had been struggling with long standing issues ultimately came out and were dealt with.  When this happened, it made the characters more believable for me, because now I could see why they had made the decisions they had made.

There were a number of unexpected things that cropped up in the book, so I ended up enjoying this book more than I thought I would.  I even cried at one point, and that wasn’t even the most moving point in the book. I don’t know why that one scene touched me so, but it did.  Honestly, I thought this was going to be a teenage Cheetos book, you know, literary junk food.  If all books are food, then some are steak dinners, and some are broccoli, some salads, some peanut butter sandwiches, etc.  (Some are lima beans, but we won’t talk about those.)  But this one turned out to be a good chicken dinner, at least.  I found myself moved and inspired by it.  Even more surprisingly, I found myself learning from it.  The themes of motive and consequences are enhanced by the powerful emotions of the teenagers experiencing them.

While as an adult I’m not the intended audience for this book, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I liked the way the author wrote about the what motivates both bullies and the outcasts who are their victims.  I think any high school student, popular or not, would enjoy this book and learn from it.  Actually, I think anyone of any age who likes YA fiction with serious themes would enjoy this boo

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Nevermore: Mormons, Leonardo, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap & The Black Count

The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith by Matthew Bowman was described as a very good book about the history of the Mormon religion. The book starts with Joseph Smith and ends with the present day and the rise of Mormon influence in today’s culture, including Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and the recent Broadway musical The Book of Mormon. The book was described as informative and readable.

Another reader was enjoying Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King. The book concentrates on the creation of what is arguably da Vinci’s most famous work. It was completed in an amazingly short time, especially for Leonardo who was notorious for more projects begun than completed, and while Italy was at war with France. King has the knack for bringing historical persons and situations to life, making for a lively story.

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch was recommended as a book that extols both the value of books and reading as well as the value of a place for readers to meet. Wendy and her husband Jack had dreamed of opening a bookstore one day. That day came rather unexpectedly, after Wendy’s job ended and they found a wonderful old house that would be perfect for both living quarters and a shop. One of our reviewers commented that in spite of its small size, Big Stone Gap seems to produce good authors.

Last but not least, Jud was very enthusiastic about The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. It’s a biography of Alexandre Dumas—General Dumas, the father of the man who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. General Dumas was born in Haiti to a French father and a slave mother, but moved to Paris where he became a soldier and then a general in Napoleon’s army. Jud says that this is a swashbuckling tale to rival any fictional novel and he highly recommends it as an amazing tale of an amazing man.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Reviewed by Nancy

Arrrrraaaagh! Talk about a marriage gone bad!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn gives us the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, a New York City couple deeply immersed in the good life. Amy is beautiful, Nick is handsome, and they are both witty and intelligent. They are magazine writers able to live beyond their obvious means due to the fact that Amy has a trust fund.

Everything is fine for them for the first few years. Actually, it is beyond fine, it is pretty much the stuff of fairy tales. BUT, then the economy goes down the tubes, the internet snuffs out printed magazines, and suddenly each of them is unemployed. I found a line from a Billy Joel song running through my head repeatedly: When the fun falls through and the rent comes due.

That’s what happened to these two. The fun fell through, the money went away, and they were left with nothing but each other, only to discover that this wasn’t enough. Ha! Not only was it not enough; it was too much.

A series of events pushes them away from New York and to Missouri where Nick has family. I do not want to reveal the events as I fear it would give away too much. Suffice it to say the die is cast.

A mystery develops, and this is one of those books that causes you to repeatedly ask yourself "What is going on? Who is the bad guy here?"

I found myself feeling unsympathetic towards both of the primary characters. Enough so that I considered putting the book down, thinking "I don't like these people, I don't care about them, I don't care who did what or how this turns out."

But did I put it down? No, because somehow I was strangely hooked. As I read, I discovered that I did like one of the characters much more than I had thought, and I found myself rooting for that character. After a time I found that I could hardly put the book down.

There are twists and turns right up until the final pages. I am not promising an ending to this saga that will seem pleasing to you. Upon completing the book, my first inclination was to find the nearest river and throw the book into it, but I couldn’t allow myself that, since the book belongs to the Bristol Public Library.

Gillian Flynn, author of two previous thrillers, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, has produced a real page-turner. If you want to escape your own life for a while, neglect your domestic and professional duties, stay up too late reading, etc., this a book you should check out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nevermore: Digital Vertigo, Little Bookstore & The End of Your Life Book Club

Nevermore featured a lot of non-fiction this week, but not all of it was well-received.  First up was Digital Vertigo:  How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us by Andrew Keen, in which the author blames various social media for stripping people of the right to privacy and solitude.  While Jud felt Keen had some justifiable concerns, the author also seemed to make a number of questionable assertions.  When Jud reached the chapter on the horrors of social reading, which Keen considers “the end of the world,” Jud gave up on the book entirely.  We all agreed that readers have always liked to share and compare when it comes to books, and that a good deal of civilization and culture is based on the idea of shared reading. After all, Nevermore itself IS a book club for people who want to talk about books and ideas.

Two recommended books were the polar opposite of Digital Vertigo when it came to reading.  Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch is the story of two “outsiders” who came to a little town in Southwest Virginia and decided to open a small used book store.  Wendy and her husband Jack Beck were greeted with some skepticism on behalf of the locals, but they persevered: they both knew that small towns take some time to get to know newcomers, especially so when aforementioned newcomers want to do something as radical as open a bookstore where one has never been before.  Today the bookstore is a thriving concern and a real part of the community, a place for readers to share a love of books. This also led to a discussion on “new” books and the consensus that any book, no matter its publication date, is new to someone who hasn’t read the book.  Some older books retain their power for centuries.

 The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe has a wonderful quotation:  “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing.  It’s the opposite of dying.”  When his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, mother and son began to spend a lot of time together in cancer treatment waiting rooms.  They both loved to read, so as a way of passing the time they selected books which they read and discussed together.  The book is not only a lovely tribute to human spirit, but to the power of books to bring people together in meaningful ways and to allow discussions that otherwise wouldn’t take place.  Schwalbe allows readers to be privy to some of the discussions in this moving and inspiring book.  This is shared reading at its finest, which allowed a mother and son to discuss topics that would have been too painful to talk about outside of a fictional framework.  It gave them both insights into each other.  Most of all, it made a very painful time less painful.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Heat Wave by Richard Castle

Reviewed by Holly White

I am a big fan of the TV show Castle, where NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett acts as a sometimes-unwilling muse for mystery novelist Richard Castle.  Castle uses his friendship with the mayor to get what he wants, which is to follow Beckett around as she works her cases as research for his novels.  Beckett finds Castle annoying, but is forced to tolerate him.  Every time there's a dead body, Castle tags along throughout the investigation, getting in the way, disobeying orders, and putting himself in danger.  To Becket’s surprise, he sometimes even helps.  Even more surprising, she finds herself attracted to him.  On the show, Castle starts writing books that are obviously based on Beckett and the others which pleases some people and annoys others.

Since I know the show is fiction, you can just imagine my astonishment to find that there are actual books in print by “Richard Castle” and follow the ones described on the show! Each Castle character is represented in the books, with enough differences to let you know these are fictionalized versions of the “real” people you know from the show. Each character in the book engages you and charms you. You get to know these people, their individual quirks, their personalities, their relationships. You laugh out loud as they pick on each other.

The first one is Heat Wave, in which NYPD homicide detective Nicki Heat isn’t happy when she’s told she’ll have to work with Jameson Rook. He’s not a cop, just a hotshot journalist doing research for an article, and she’s sure he’ll be in the way. Then a tycoon falls to his death and Heat and Rook find themselves caught up in the world of the rich and powerful, where secrets can get you killed—and there are a lot of secrets.

This isn’t the type of book I would usually read. Mysteries are not my usual flavor, but I started reading it because of the show, and then found I couldn’t put it down.

The plot is well done, playing you out just enough line but keeping you on the hook. The book is well paced; it never bogs down in descriptions, but keeps the action moving, something I particularly appreciate in any novel. There were several twists and turns, so I was not able to figure out who the murderer was until it was revealed in the story’s climax. Perhaps a reader who regularly reads murder mysteries might have done better at this, I don’t know.

But to me, the real mystery is who really wrote these books. I haven’t been able to find out, after some not-so-intensive Internet search. The real author is not revealed in the convoluted acknowledgments at the back of the book, which cleverly allude to Sir Edmund Hilary (the first man to climb Mount Everest) and Tenzing Norgay (the sherpa who helped him). I say convoluted because the acknowledgments are hard to follow, since the author thanks both real and imaginary people, interchangeably, some whom I recognize and some whom I don’t. I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, and a clever mystery reader could find out if they really wanted to. But for now, I am enjoying this mystery of not knowing. It’s a delicious one that I want to savor until just the right moment to find out.

The book isn’t high literature, but it isn’t all fluff, either. It’s just a fun read that keeps you curious, and makes you want to read all the rest of the books in the series, which I plan to do. If you read the book and like it, watch the show; I think you’d enjoy it. If you like the show, read the book. And if you happen to figure out who the real author is, please don’t let me know. I’m enjoying the mystery.

If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll love this book.  If you’re not a fan but you like mysteries with fun characters and snappy dialogue, you’ll enjoy this book.  I know I did!

Here are the books in the series so far:
1. Heat Wave
2. Naked Heat
3. Heat Rises
4. Frozen Heat

Holly White is a Bristol Public Library patron who has voluteered to write some reviews for us. We look forward to her next reviw!  Other guest reviewers are welcome.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Nevermore: Todd, Pitts, & Climate

Two recent library presentations made a big impression on the Nevermore readers Chuck Todd of NBC News spoke on November 10 as part of the Discovery series, and King College’s Buechner Institute presented columnist Leonard Pitts at the library on November 12.

Todd’s major points concerned the changing demographics of America as well as voter patterns that defied conventional wisdom. His ability to recall facts and figures as well as make informed comments about a wide variety of political topics made a very favorable impression on the large crowd at the VI Auditoium. There will no doubt be much written about the 2012 race, just as there were several books about 2008. One of the better known books about the 2008 race is Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin which was made into a movie. Our reviewer said she finished the book disliking every candidate.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a popular social commentator and author of three non-fiction books and one novel. His most recent book is Freeman, a novel set in the aftermath of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. Sam, a former slave, sets out from Philadelphia to find his wife, who was left behind in Mississippi when Sam and their son escaped to the North; meanwhile, an affluent white woman from Boston sets out for the South with the intent of building a school for the newly freed slaves. Mr. Pitts also drew an enthusiastic local audience which made for Standing Room Only in Main's J. Henry Kegley Meeting Room.

The Storms of My Grandchildren is an examination of current climate conditions and the threat of climate change as detailed by James Hansen. Hansen is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and he sees catastrophic conditions in the future if steps aren’t taken now to prevent more global warming. His book not only deals with the physical aspects of change, but with the geopolitical roadblocks that are keeping emissions high in various countries.

A related book is Global Weirdness by Climate Central, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group of scientists who took up Thomas Friedman’s challenge to write a report on climate change. Jud’s impression was that it was well done but there were a lot of facts and figures to absorb. These two books led to a general discussion on climate change. Who do you trust? Is climate change real? If it is real, what can we do about it?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mad River: A Virgil Flowers Mystery by John Sandford

Reviewed by Doris

I have been a John Sandford fan since the beginning of his Lucas Davenport Prey series.  Sandford is a master of the strong character driven police procedural with the added appeal of some humor and romance.  All of his books are set in Minnesota in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, and they have a hard edge of graphic violence.  One of Sandford’s strongest points as a writer is his creation of the bad guy. The Prey series with Davenport has some of the most frightening killers in fiction, and Lucas does not always get the killer. A few years ago, Sandford added a new protagonist when he introduced Virgil Flowers, another BCI agent who was in some ways Lucas’ protégé who now has his own series.  Mad River is the sixth Virgil Flowers novel, and Virgil has moved away from supporting character to leading character with his own strengths and methods of solving crimes.

In Mad River Virgil is traveling his old stomping grounds of rural Minnesota where he grew up. We meet his parents and others from his past which adds more dimension to the character. He is the son of a Lutheran minister and that often leads him to ruminating about the power of God and the battles of Good and Evil. Since he usually only gets pulled into cases of multiple or particularly brutal murders, these contemplations may be what keeps him grounded. Make no mistake though, Virgil is no Bible thumper. He is often the voice of reason when situations get tense. He has an amazing attraction to women, and for that has earned a nickname that is unrepeatable here. The nickname also has to do with his amazing “luck” in solving cases. While I continue to really enjoy the Lucas Davenport novels, I find the character of Virgil has become more appealing in many ways.

Mad River begins with three young people who are angry, living on the streets, and who fancy themselves the new Bonnie and Clyde and side-kick. Becky Welch, Tom McCall, and Jimmy Sharp have a bad attitude, not much conscience, and guns. They begin their crime spree with a robbery that goes wrong. As they travel the back roads with Virgil in pursuit, they leave a trail of death. Each time Virgil thinks he knows where they are headed, things change and it seems catching the trio is not going to happen without some lucky break for law enforcement. In what appears to be an accurate depiction of small town law enforcement procedures, Sandford weaves the violence at a fast pace. Virgil finds himself questioning both his abilities and those of the officers around him, and the twist at the end is both surprising and long foreshadowed.

The Virgil Flowers novels are Dark of the Moon, Heat Lightning, Rough Country, Bad Blood, Shockwave, and Mad River. All are available at both Avoca and the Main BPL.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ARGO: Worth the Trip to the Theater

Reviewed by Doris

Antonio Mendez is a CIA operative whose area of expertise is “exfiltrading” people from ugly situations. He has to plan and then lead missions to extract people important to the US government. It is a job that few know about, no one in the CIA acknowledges and yet it is one of the most dangerous positions for a CIA operative. Sounds like the hero of a spy novel, doesn’t it? Mendez is someone who could have been invented by Robert Ludlum, but he is real and so were his missions.

In 1979 Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage and held for 444 days. Six Americans escaped from the embassy before it was seized and eventually were hidden in the Canadian embassy. After months of dithering around with bad plans to save the six “houseguests,” the CIA turned to their top extraction man Mendez. Working with the governments of Canada, New Zealand, and Great Britain, Mendez devised an ingenious plan and brought out the six Americans. To protect the remaining hostages, the United States kept the role of Mendez and the CIA secret. Canada was credited with the save. Clearly without the courage of the Canadian Ambassador and his wife, the Canadian government, and a few Iranians who helped pull off the extraction, the Americans would have been executed as spies.

Why the short and not very thorough history lesson? "Argo" tells the story of Mendez and his mission in a taunt, often funny, always tense movie that is well worth a trip to the theater. Ben Affleck does a superb job as director and star of "Argo", and he along with George Clooney and Grant Heslov were producers of the thriller. I have never been much of an Affleck fan but his handling of this topic and this movie is top notch.

Plan after plan to rescue the hostages has been discarded as unworkable. Mendez finally has a flash of inspiration. He will be the Canadian producer of the movie ARGO , a cheesy science-fiction film with a “Middle Eastern vibe, “and go to Iran to look for locations for the filming. The six Americans, using Canadian passports will leave the country as his film crew. John Chambers (played by John Goodman) , the Oscar-winning Hollywood make up icon has worked with Mendez before so he is enlisted to help set up a fake movie production company. He brings in Lester Siegel (played by Alan Arkin) to help, and ARGO is on its way.  When the higher ups in the CIA and the State Department question Mendez on his plan, he tells them all the plans are bad, but ARGO is the best bad plan they have.

Using Tony Mendez’s The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA and Joshuah Bearman’s Wired  article “Escape from Tehran” as his sources, screenplay writer Chris Terrio has done an enthralling retelling of the hostage crisis. Using actual television news footage extensively to keep the timeline focused Terrio balances the story between what is happening in Tehran and Washington, DC. The politics of the situation is always there, as is the fear that begins to fray the nerves of the six “houseguests.” I have to say that even though I knew how the story ended, I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat muttering, “Hurry! Hurry!”

While the screenplay is not totally factual it tells a story of conflicts—those between countries, religions, people, and even agencies in Washington, DC.  It also shows what good things can happen when we can reach out to work together to make good things happen.  I expect to see "Argo" nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and it so deserves it.

We have both Tony Mendez’s books The Master of Disguise: My life in the CIA (327.12 Men)  and Argo:  How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History  (955.0542 MEN) at Main.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Nevermore November Nonfiction

The cold and snow made for a smaller gathering at last week’s Nevermore, but the discussion was as wide ranging as ever. Here are some highlights:

The Joy of X by by Steven H. Strogatz is just the book for all those folks with math anxiety. He uses pop cultural references and humor to explain a wide range of mathematical concepts, including (gulp!) calculus. The book isn’t a textbook or manual; it explains basic concepts in a fun, enlightening way.

Mortality is Christopher Hitchens’ final book, which he wrote while dying of cancer. Much of the book comes from essays he wrote for various publications in his final months. Hitchens was known for his wit, intelligence, and contrarian stances on a number of subjects, including religion; dying didn’t soften him one bit. Fans admire his straightforward approach and his refusal to sugarcoat anything as well as his eloquence and lucid arguments on a variety of topics.

This led to a discussion about religion and a recommendation for the books of Karen Armstrong. Armstrong is a well respected commentator on religion. One of her best known books is A History of God, which compares Judaism, Islam and Christianity. She looks for shared beliefs among the world’s religions.

Finally, there was a recommendation for It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. Both are government scholars. They argue that partisan politics and ideological extremism have set up roadblocks to governing and, unless the two parties can work together, the country faces disaster.