Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I Am Half Sick of Shadows: A Flavia de Luce Novel by C. Alan Bradley

 Reviewed by Jeanne

One of the most difficult things about doing book reviews for me is to decide exactly how much to tell about a book.  In the course of my work, I read a lot of reviews; sometimes I start to feel that I’ve already read the book because I know so much about it without ever having so much as cracked the cover.  In the case of I Am Half Sick of Shadows by C. Alan Bradley, I’ve thought long and hard and concluded that probably the best way to introduce it is to do a bit of a spoiler; otherwise, it’s rather difficult to explain to someone unfamiliar with this series.
When the book opens, eleven year old Flavia is skating down the long portrait hall in Buckshaw, her castle-like ancestral home.  There is no heat, and once flooded, the water immediately turned into ice.  She can see the pattern of the parquet beneath from the candles she set into the chandeliers.  She fantasizes that some celebrity photographer will be by and take her photo, which will then appear in a leading magazine.  Wouldn’t that just make her sisters puce with envy!  At this point, Flavia awakens in her bed, though it’s almost as cold as in her dream.
If your reaction is, “Well, of course it was just a dream!  No one would really flood a house and skate down a hall!” then you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of Flavia de Luce.  People who know the precocious chemist would have no trouble at all believing that Flavia would do just that, strictly in the interest of science (and to annoy her sisters and astonish her father).  Flavia is a wonderful creation; she sounds like an adult for the most part and a very learned adult at that, but she is still basically a child.  Part of the fun is seeing Flavia’s interpretation of events.
The series is set in the 1950s English countryside where the de Luce family has lived for generations as the local gentry.  Times have not been good; the family has been financially strapped since Harriet, Flavia’s mother, perished in the Himalayan Mountains. Now Buckshaw has been rented out to a film company in an effort to raise money.  The family is divided about this turn of events.  Father is embarrassed but resigned, seeing no other way out. Flavia’s older sisters Daphne and Ophelia try to appear blasé about the worldly thespians who are descending upon them but are secretly intrigued. Flavia herself is more preoccupied with her plans for the holiday, plans which should secure her place in history:  she is going to capture Father Christmas. She has begun to harbor a touch of doubt about the existence of the jolly old elf, and –being Flavia—would like to settle the matter scientifically.
Meanwhile, the film crew has descended and it isn’t long before Flavia becomes aware of some conflicts held just below the surface.  In a grand gesture, some of the cast agree to participate in a fundraising event for the local church.  Tickets are sold and half the village shows up, just as a snowstorm makes travel impossible. This insures that there is no lack of suspects when one of the actors is murdered.

I can't say that the series continues to improve because it was a great series from the start.  The second book slipped just a bit for me, but the overall quality has remained consistently high.  Witty, with a wonderful set of characters and marvelous atmosphere, I recommend this series unreservedly.  If you're among the fans of Downton Abbey,  you might give this series a try.  It's set a couple of decades later, but there is a bit of the same feel about it.  You don't need to read the books in order but if that's your preference, start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Nevermore: Coffee & Mysteries

The first book discussed at the January 24th meeting of the Nevermore Book Club was Coffee is Good For You by Robert J. Davis.  As our director pointed out, seeing the title that way doesn’t really express what the book is about. For that you need to see the cover:

And quite a good cover it is, too!  Yes, the theme is the conflicting information we get every day about the foods we eat and whether or not they’re good for us.  Author Davis examines a number of these assertions and rates them on a “Truth-o-Meter” as to their validity. Does eating oatmeal lower your cholesterol?  Which is better, butter or margarine? The Caveman Diet or the Mediterranean Diet?   Lucky for the book club members, coffee did rate rather well, so we all drank ours without guilt.  We did not check to see what mentions there might have been of doughnuts, however.

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham got a good review from our reader who really liked the amount of legal information Grisham weaves into his books.  The plot has young lawyer Michael being taken hostage by a homeless man who claims he and his friends have been illegally evicted.  Although he’s rescued by a police sniper, Michael begins to wonder about the homeless man.  What he discovers will change his life forever.

Jo Nesbo, one of the new “Nordic Noir” authors, has had a new book published in the US.  The Leopard has detective Harry Hole called back to Norway after two young women are found dead.  It looks to be the work of a serial killer and since Harry has dealt with such killers before, everyone is looking to him to find the murderer.  Our reviewer reports that the book requires concentration, but is definitely one she wants to finish.

Three Day Town by Margaret Maron is the latest in the very popular Judge Deborah Knott series.  Deborah and her husband Dwight are on a belated honeymoon in New York City. They’ve been asked to drop off a package while they’re there, but before they can accomplish that task, a man is murdered and the contents of the package stolen.  This is a book Maron fans have long awaited, since it also features Sigrid Harald, who was the main character in Maron’s first series of mysteries. Our reader likes the way Maron writes and is enjoying this book, even though he’s never read any of the Sigrid mysteries.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Newbery & Caldecott Awards

The 2012 Newbery and Caldecott Awards for American Children's Literature have been announced!  The winners are:

Newbery Award

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos 

Honor Books
Breaking Stalin's Nose  by Eugene Yelchin

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Caldecott Award
A Ball for Daisy  by Chris Raschka

Honor Books
Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell

Grandpa Green   by Lane Smith

Blackout by John Rocco

For more information as well as a complete list of other award winners, click here.

(On a strictly personal note, I was delighted to see Patrick McDonnell win for his picture book biography of naturalist Jane Goodall.  McDonnell is the author of the MUTTS comic strip and has used the characters in several children's books.  A review of Mutts:  the Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell was posted some months back at our blog.  You can read it here.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Touch of Nostalgia: Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney & Victoria Holt

An Appreciation by Doris
Do you remember an author whose books drew you to a favorite genre? Jeanne handed me a Mystery Scene magazine this morning and the first thing I read was about Mary Stewart. I thought Ms. Stewart had passed away a long time ago so I was pleased to learn she is still very much with us. The rush of memory of how much I loved her books sent me to the computer to write this. Because of Mary Stewart and two other wonderful mystery writers of similar style, I loved reading and developed a passion for mysteries that guides what I read even today.
     I lived with my grandparents in a small rural community on and off during my childhood and teen years. My grandfather and I were very close; we often sat on the big front porch at the end of the day and just enjoyed watching the world go by. My grandmother Lillie and I were also very close, and we shared a love that has lasted all my life—reading. To benefit that little farming community my grandmother took a small front room in the house and made it into a community library. Every couple of weeks the van from the Watauga Regional Library would come and deliver new books. I rushed to sort through the books and shelve them for Mamaw because that gave me first crack at the three women who would shape my love for mysteries: Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney.
     I learned to read very young—Aunt June was confined to bed because of rheumatic fever and she kept herself entertained by teaching me to read when I was not quite four. There were always books around the house because of my grandmother’s love for reading, and no one ever told me I could not read something because it was either too mature for me or too hard. Books by the Grand Dames of Mysteries as I called the three ladies were intriguing, exotic because they often were set in far off places, and the stories flowed. I would sit with my Papaw and read him sections of Nine Coaches Waiting or My Brother Michael. I don’t know that he really enjoyed the books, but he enjoyed having me beside him reading to him and I felt so important! When I first read The Crystal Cave, Stewart’s first novel in her Merlin of the Arthurian legends trilogy—a Christmas gift from my grandmother that still sits in a special place on my bookcase—I was enthralled. It is still, for a number of reasons, one of my all-time favorite books and it has been lovingly reread many times.
     Phyllis Whitney’s books had the island locations or adventures in places had only heard about in my geography class. Mystery on the Island of Skye, Moonflower, and others gave me hours of escape into a world that fascinated me and took me far way from East Tennessee. When my mom married a career soldier and we lived in Europe, I finally got to see some of those places and castles Ms. Whitney had described so clearly in her books.
     Eleanor Hibbert writing as Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Philippa Carr, Eleanor Burford, and other pen names may have been the reason I majored in British literature in college. Her historical fiction including the Mary, Queen of Scotts series and her Plantagenet series were such richly drawn, richly characterized novels about England and its royal history. All that romance, adventure, and remarkable characters—how could a youngster not fall in love with all the pageantry?
     Ms. Hibbert/Holt and Ms. Whitney are both gone now and Ms. Stewart is ninety-five years old and no longer writing for publication, but their books are still stalwarts on our shelves. Unfortunately it is often just our older patrons who check them out. Today’s mysteries are very different than the Grand Dames’, but these women writers along with a few others created the genre that has proven so successful for the Catherine Coulters, Janet Evanovichs, and Tami Hoags of today. The Grand Dames wrote for a simpler time when graphic sex or violence was not the mainstay of a mystery, and many of our younger readers are really missing great stories and characters because the time for the Grand Dames is believed to have passed. I plan to reread some favorites from Stewart, Whitney, and Holt and remember why I fell in love with mysteries. Come join me and take a little trip back in time!
Do you have a favorite author who hooked you on reading a genre? Share with us, please.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nevermore: History, Mystery and Perfection!

Nevermore Book Club was a free-wheeling adventure today with discussions ranging from the founding fathers to issues that face libraries and will affect our access to books in the years to come. Have you ever heard the saying, “Good is the enemy of perfect”? Mr. Barry opened the discussion with a story from Charles Baxter’s book Gryphon.  The story calls into question what is perfect and if “good enough” is ultimately the enemy of perfect. The discussion among Nevermore members raised the questions, “What is perfect?”  “How is perfect defined?” And, “Can ‘perfect’ really be attained?” Baxter is regarded as one of America’s best contemporary short story writers. We have Gryphon, A Relative Stranger, and Saul and Patsy available at the BPL.
Mr. Barry also discussed Stephen R. Covey’s The Third Alternative, and Carl Pillemer’s 30 Lessons for Living. Pillemer’s book is a series of interviews with elderly people about the important lessons and wisdom they have learned in their lives. The Third Alternative offers creative problem solving that looks beyond “my solution” and “your solution” to the process of finding a third solution that could be better. Called one of the most influential men in America, Covey’s newest book is sure to cause a whirlwind of discussions in Mr. Barry’s opinion. Covey is also the author of the very popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
 The book that elicited the most discussion is Jefferson’s Sons by Bristol resident Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. A juvenile selection, Jefferson’s Son tells the stories of Beverly and Madison, one of Thomas Jefferson’s African-American sons by his slave Sally Hemings. This fictionalized account of Beverly Hemings’ first encounter with his father and the subsequent lives the boys have at Monticello brings to bear questions on Jefferson and his ethics. Another Nevermore member is reading a biography of Patrick Henry added some pertinent comments on both Jefferson and Henry. As a side note, we hope Ms. Bradley will be one of our presenters in our Discovery Series or other program.
Another member has been reading The Leopard, the newest mystery by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Nesbo’s  Inspector Harry Hole is recalled to Norway after the discovery of two bodies seems to indicate a serial killer is on the loose. This reader also recommends Henning Mankell to anyone interested in the Scandinavian writers (perhaps sparked by the Steig Larsson books!) since Mankell is her favorite of the genre.  Mankell is best known for his excellent Kurt Wallander procedural mysteries.
Bill Pronzini’s Camouflage is a mystery which deals with a detective trying to find out the real story involving injuries to a child, a woman who may or may not be psychotic, and a death. Was it murder or self-defense? Our reader says it is driving him crazy to know the answer!
Last but not least were two wonderful books: Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods and Katherine Mosby’s Private Altars. Our reader says Private Altars is a beautifully written book, possibly due to Mosby’s skills as a poet. Nightwoods is the new book by the author of Cold Mountain.  Once again North Carolina is the setting but this time it’s the 1960s instead of the 1860s. Luce has worked hard to build a life of her own after a childhood of neglect.  Her relative contentment ends when her sister is murdered and Luce becomes the guardian for her sister’s two troubled children. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Southern Appalachian Celebration, A History of the World & Tales of Invention

 Jeanne's Books In Brief
 We've been getting in a number of wonderful new books lately! Here are some brief reviews just to whet your appetite: 

Southern Appalachian Celebration:  In Praise of Ancient Mountains, Old-Growth Forests, and Wilderness by James Valentine is a glorious collection of photographs showcasing the beauty of the mountains in our region.  Our director Jud Barry is especially fond of a shot of Roan Mountain with the rhododendrons in full bloom.  While there have been any number of such photos, this one is taken from an unusual angle, leaving one to wonder just exactly where the photographer was standing.  The informative text by Chris Bolgiano identifies the area and fauna along with fascinating tidbits that range from the historical to the scientific; this is one of the few books in which the captions really give an added dimension to the book.  For example, along with a shot of Cumberland Falls in Kentucky Bolgiano tells us that it’s said on clear nights with a full moon one can observe a lunar rainbow.   This is a real gem of a book and comes highly recommended.
A History of the World in 100 Objects  by Neil MacGregor is a deceptively simple description for a complex book.  The idea was to draw upon all the resources in the British Museum in order to tell the story of humankind.  Just think about it for a moment:  if you had to choose items to tell the story of all humans, all civilizations and cultures, from the beginning to the present, what would you choose?  The first items in the book are stone implements.  At least one color photograph accompanies each, along with commentary that incorporates what is known or theorized about the object and how it was used.  The final entry is a solar light and battery from 2010.  In between, there are all manner of objects, from paintings to statues to maps to musical instruments to weapons.  One personal favorite is the helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial, a magnificent piece that was found as part of a ship burial for an unknown hero. 
The number 100 is apparently a popular one for book titles because also on our new book shelf is Rick Beyer’s The Greatest Science Stories Never Told: 100 Tales of Invention and Discovery to Astonish, Bewilder, & Stupefy. As you might guess, the book is a fun and somewhat off-beat collection of stories .  The stories are real and Beyer’s renditions are entertaining, though he reduces the stories a just about one page. There’s the tale of the Olympic gold medalist and inventor whose scientific toys were so intriguing that he prevented a ban on toy sales during wartime, and the one about King Camp Gillette who not only saw the need for a disposable razor but who had big plans to make the world a utopia. The stories are arranged chronologically. Alas, there is no index; if you want to read about Einstein’s refrigerator, you have to page through.  A personal favorite is the entry for 1947-- no, you won't be surprised at what it is. Beyer does include a list of his sources, if you want more information.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Year


Reviewed by Jeanne 
On January 1st, a number of bird-watching enthusiasts will decide to embark on a “Big Year.”  That’s when a birder spends an entire year trying to see as many bird species as he can throughout North America.  People have spent thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of miles in an effort to become the top birder for the year, an award that carries no prizes nor trophies, and which is done strictly on the honor system.  Sound crazy?  It did to Mark Obmascik, too, but he was intrigued enough to do a little research.  He concentrated on one almost mythic year in which three men set out to try to break the record.  The result was the book The Big Year:  A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, a book not just for the birds—er, birders.
First Obmascik sets the stage by explaining that he wasn’t interested in birds when he started beyond knowing a few common species like robins or cardinals.  He thought bird-watchers were just a bit kooky, dashing off to inhospitable climes on short notice, enduring heat, cold, rain, and snow, just to see a bird. This impression soon gave way to a real appreciation of birders, especially the three men who set out in 1998 on their “Big Years.”
Sandy Komito was the record holder, a man who had seen over 721 species in a year.  He had shattered the previous record of 711, but he knew he could do better.  What was worse, he knew others could do better and he wanted to hold onto his record or even add to it. Sandy is one of those driven guys who has the focus and the money to do follow up on his ideas, though at times his personality made his quest a bit more difficult than it should be.
Al Levantin was an avid birder, but his job as an executive had kept him tied down.  Now he was retired.  He had time and he had money.  He’d waited forty years. Now he was going to spend a year chasing birds with his family’s blessing.  It was what he’d always wanted to do. . . wasn’t it?
Greg Miller was at a low point in his life.  He was employed, but his job was debugging code ahead of Y2K: tedious work. His marriage had fallen apart. He felt he had disappointed his family. He felt his life was drab.  The only time he relaxed and enjoyed life was when he was birdwatching, a pastime his father enjoyed.  No one had ever done a Big Year and held down a full time job.  Greg decided to be the first.  His gift of being able to recognize birds simply by hearing their song was a definite advantage and Greg needed all the help he could get. He was definitely going the no-frills route, living off jars of peanut butter and maxing out not only his credit card but his parents’ card as well.  He already felt like a loser in his father’s eyes because of his failed marriage; now he was driving them all into debt. 
The reader follows these three through triumphs, near-misses, disasters, and disappointments; through swamps where the mosquitoes are nearly the size of birds themselves, bouts of seasickness on choppy waters, trudging the tundra in Alaska, and a birdwatching hot spot near a garbage dump where a sense of smell is not an asset. There is a lot of humor in the book, but it’s not poking fun at these guys nor birders in general.  It’s more the slice of life humor, when Murphy’s Laws seem in full force as well as unbelievable good fortune. Not only is The Big Year a fun and fascinating look at a hobby loved by millions the world over, it’s a sort of rumination on following one’s dreams and the lengths to which one should go to achieve them.  Obmascik also manages to convey the thrill of the chase along with some fascinating information about birds and birders. Funny, thoughtful and informative, this is a book that even non-birders will enjoy.  I certainly did.  I even pause and look at my bird feeder a bit more often, and when I hear a news report about an unusual bird showing up somewhere I mentally picture excited birders flocking to the site to add to their life lists.

Note:  the book was made into a movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.  While reviews were generally good, the actors’ reputations made the audience expect a slapstick comedy. There is a good bit of humor in the film, but it’s a gentler sort with far less pratfalls and jokes about bodily functions than some would expect. It’s more about defining one’s goals and finding out what is truly important. The movie took some liberties with the story—the characters were all renamed and some background altered—but the spirit remained true. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

NevermoreBook Club: Fiction from Baxter, Banks, LaPlante & Cornwell

Our director Jud Barry came across Charles Baxter’s Gryphon:  New and Selected Stories on the new books shelf and quickly became fascinated.  He isn’t exactly certain what to call the stories but proposed “Midwest Weird." Baxter likes to take very ordinary and realistic situations and give them a twist.  While short stories aren’t to everyone’s taste, our readers have found Baxter’s stories to be intriguing and very readable. Gryphon was selected by the NY Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2011.
Also on that list was The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, a novel that has been awaited eagerly by the Nevermore members who enjoyed The Sweet Hereafter and Cloudsplitter.  In this novel, a character called only "the Kid" is living under a bridge in an unnamed city in Florida.  At age 22, he’s a registered sex offender, which means the places where he can live are very limited.  The Professor is a sociologist who wants to use the Kid as a guinea pig for some of his theories – or so he says.  Banks is known for his complex, well-written, thought-provoking novels, and this one is no exception. 
Turn of Mind by Lydia LaPlante is described as a literary thriller. The story is a narrated in the first person by Jennifer White, a gifted surgeon forced to retire because of increasing dementia. At the moment, she’s under suspicion of murdering a woman who was once her best friend: they’re hoping she will confess.  The problem is that Jennifer doesn’t know whether or not she is guilty.  This novel has been called compelling, haunting, mesmerizing and heartbreaking.
One Nevermore member was re-reading Hornet’s Nest by Patricia Cornwell for the wonderful descriptions of Charlotte, NC.  Cornwell worked as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, so she knew the town well.  The plot has a crime beat reporter covering a string of murders of out of town businessmen. The novel is being filmed for a TNT movie to air sometime this year, but Wilmington is going to stand in for Charlotte.

The Nevermore Book Club meets every Tuesday at 11:00 AM.    Coffee is provided by the library, while the Blackbird Bakery provides the delectable doughnuts!  Everyone is invited to drop by and join in by sharing the titles of books worth reading-- or not worth reading, as the case may be.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What's Hot for 2012!

As in an earlier column, we're going to list the most requested books at Bristol Public Library and our Avoca Branch Library.  If you don't already have these on reserve, you can either call the library or put the books on reserve yourself through our website.

10 Sleepwalker by Karen Robards
A policeman and a female thief find themselves running for their lives in this novel that mixes romance and suspense.

9.  Next Always by Nora Roberts
This is the first in a trilogy involving the restoration of an old house as a bed and breakfast.  Architect Beckett Montgomery comes back home to help his mother and brother with renovations, and discovers he's still attracted to his high school crush.  

8. Longing by Karen Kingsbury
 This is the third book in the Bailey Flannagan series which started with Leaving.  The fourth book, Loving, is scheduled to be published in  March. Fans of Christian author Kingsbury will want to start at the beginning.

7.  Locked In by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney
Jack Ryan has decided to run for president again when a close friend is threatened by an unknown enemy.

6. Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris
This twelfth book in the Sookie Stackhouse series won't be published until May, 2012 but that hasn't stopped people putting it on reserve!

5. Unwritten Laws by Greg Iles
This sequel to The Devil's Punchbowl features the return of Penn Cage.  Unfortunately, Iles was severely injured in a traffic accident and so the book has been delayed until some time in 2012.  This book is subtitled "The Bone Tree;" volume two of Unwritten Laws  may also come out in 2012.
4. Kill Shot by Vince Flynn
Mitch Rapp has been working his way through the list of men responsible for the PanAm Lockerbie attack, but his next target proves to be a trap. Due to Vince Flynn's illness, the book was delayed but now Kill Shot is scheduled to come out on February 7, 2012.

3.Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis
Four women friends are invited on the vacation of a lifetime, to revel in luxury and indulge in whatever they please.  Then the police show up, accusing them of a shocking crime.

2. D.C. Dead by Stuart Woods
Stone Barrington is called to Washington to solve a murder-suicide, an job that reunites him with Holly Barker.

1.  Inheritance:  Or, the Vault of Souls by Christopher Paolini
The long-awaited conclusion to the Eragon saga-- enough said!