Monday, December 30, 2013

My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach

Reviewed by Kristin

Mary Roach is one of those humorous writers who could probably make reading the phone book funny.  This collection of “My Planet” columns previously published in Reader’s Digest is good for everything from a little chuckle to outright cackling, if you identify strongly with some of the “issues” she tackles.

I have to admit that it was the “Reader’s Digest” on the cover that made me pick up this one.  I have always enjoyed the humorous anecdotes in the sections “Life in These United States” and “Laughter, the Best Medicine”.  Since my previous experience with Mary Roach was seeing the covers of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, a collection of funny columns sounded great to me.

Interactions with her husband Ed are prime material for Mary’s columns.  New remote control for the satellite dish?  Yep, Mary is going to write about the challenges of programming the remote.  Home repair?  Ed shows up as “Mr. Fix-It-Later”.  Number of pillows on the bed?  Pre-rinse dishes for the dishwasher?  Place the sofas facing the television, or in a “conversational” grouping?  You can be sure that Mary and Ed have different opinions on all of those things.

Mary has a talent for looking at mundane happenings and turning them into quirky stories.  Going to the drug store to look for a cold remedy turns into a treatise on The Wall of Cold Remedies, the frightening array of choices that a sick, often stuffy-headed person must face.  Figuring out what to do with your various plastic storage containers—Mary and Ed have faced The Container Store together.

If you live on this planet and would enjoy a little humor to spice up your day, check out My Planet.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

Reviewed by William Wade

When we think of the American Revolution the mental images that come to mind are of the New England Minutemen confronting British regulars at Bunker Hill, the generalship of George Washington and the suffering his men endured during those cold winters at Valley Forge, and the determined march of the Overmountain Men who destroyed a Loyalist force at King’s Mountain and helped change the course of the war in the Southern states.

But there is another approach, one little known by most Americans, and that is a knowledge of the British side of the American Revolution.  And understanding that perspective sheds a whole new light on how the war was fought and provides clues as to the reasons for American victory.  That is the thrust of a newly published book, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire.  Even if you think your know the war fairly well, you will find that the author, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, professor of history at the University of Virginia, has some valuable insights about the nature of the struggle.

For example, the British government never fully understood American resistance to Parliamentary taxation, for tax rates were actually much higher in Britain.  And when the British sent major armies to subdue the colonies, their generals thought in terms of seizing towns and centers of population.  At one time or another they captured and controlled Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah in Georgia.  But they failed to grasp that the heart and soul of the rebellion centered in Washington’s valiant army.  If they could ever have entrapped the little American army and forced Washington to surrender, the war would have been over.  Washington actually lost most of the battles he fought, but his army always escaped capture and was ready to fight again another day.  And so the conflict continued year after year.

Finally the British people grew tired of a war that never seemed to produce any significant gains.  In1781 when Lord Cornwallis invaded Virginia, leaders in London knew that continuance of the war depended upon Cornwallis achieving a significant victory.  King George III was one of the most vigorous proponents of the war, for he considered it a personal affront  that the Americans preferred not to be ruled by him.  And so when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October, George could only cry out in his despair, “Oh God, it’s all over!”  It was probably the most perceptive analysis of the war he made during the entire six years of fighting!

Yes, you’ll find this a delightful read, full of many interesting stories, and you’ll be glad for the chance to witness the conflict from a new perspective when you stand behind the British lines!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nevermore: David & Goliath, The Battle for Christmas, and Plantagenets

Reported by Kristin

A Nevermore reader shared David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.  Beginning with the story of David and Goliath, this book discusses overcoming obstacles as a way to succeed.  For example, in Biblical times, “slingers” were a regular part of the military.  These smaller soldiers might have an advantage in felling a larger foe, particularly in the case of Goliath who may have had a defect that enlarged his entire body and also hindered his eyesight. Another point noted by our reader was that twelve of our United States’ presidents lost their fathers at a young age, but managed to overcome that family difficulty and become a success.  Rather than beating down the underdog, this book strives to elevate and encourage.

Jud brought the timely book The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.  This volume explains the history of many Christmas traditions in the United States.  Christmas as we know it was born in Victorian times as the holiday was romanticized and commercialized.  Santa Claus and gift giving for children was promoted by non-Dutch New Yorkers, as children became the focus of family life for progressively well-off families.  Even the Christmas tree, a German tradition, was not initially brought to the United States by German immigrants.  Most traditions that we observe here in the United States have been cobbled together from a variety of sources.  With an eye to the historical view, Jud says that this book deepens his appreciation for Christmas.

Another reader just finished The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones.  Quite a thick book at over 500 pages, this book describes the many wars and struggles over territory and atrocities such as drawing and quartering.  The English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and French all had different ideas about who should be in charge, and these bloody kings and queens were the leaders that guided the many changes over the centuries.  Starting with Geoffrey of Anjou, the author has penned a bold narrative to illustrate this period of English history.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

Reviewed by Kristin

Shandi, a  21-year-old college senior, is still at home being mothered by her mother, while she is trying to be a mother to three-year-old Nathan.  After “Natty” teaches himself to read and his IQ is found to be in the genius range, Shandi’s father (or rather, her step-mother Bethany) invites Shandi and her son to come live in their Atlanta condo so that Nathan will have the opportunity to attend an academically appropriate pre-school. Shandi jumps at the chance to live ten minutes away from Georgia State instead of two hours away in her small mountain town.

Shandi, Natty, and best-friend Walcott are on their way to Atlanta in her bright yellow VW bug when suddenly Natty declares that his throat feel “tickle-y.”  As any mother of a carsick prone child would do, Shandi makes the quickest exit she can and stops the car for some side of the road throwing up, and then a trip the Circle K for some ginger ale.  Unfortunately, this is where their day goes downhill, and quickly.

The first paragraph of the book reads:

    “I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.  It was on a Friday
    afternoon at the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot the air felt like it had
    all been boiled red.  We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32
    that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.”

The author says that William is a character she has had bumping around in her head for a decade.  He is a scientist, thinking in terms of black and white, yes or no, and does not in any way believe in destiny.  William believes that what happens is a direct result of choices that people make, not some mystical force that causes the universe to unfold in a certain way.  William is standing in the Circle K staring at the laundry detergent when a man walks in with that ancient, creaky .32.  As the gunman orders everyone to the ground, William slides eighteen inches to the side, putting himself between the gun and Natty.

This is a book about miracles, although not the huge, visible miracles that some of the characters believe in, but the tiny miracles that bubble up unexpectedly.  Joshilyn Jackson is a talented author who writes vivid prose in such a way that you can almost taste the words, rich and full.  In this particular book, Jackson throws in plot twists that I did not anticipate, yet draws the strings together and makes the conclusion a satisfying one.  The images she creates with her written words will stay with you long after finishing the book.

Because I have read and enjoyed all of Jackson’s previous books, I went to Asheville last week to buy this book at Malaprops bookstore, and to hear Jackson speak.  She is an entertaining speaker and even made my teenage daughter laugh.  If you ever have chance to hear her, I would highly recommend doing so.  If you missed Jackson’s previous books, you can read a brief overview of each book that we posted on the bookblog back in April by clicking here.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Lethal Treasure by Jane K. Cleland

Reviewed by Jeanne

Antiques dealer Josie Prescott is attending an auction of storage units with new friend Henri, who has opened a decoration and design firm with his wife Leigh Ann.  Customers are given a quick look at a unit’s contents, but aren’t allowed to open any boxes or otherwise examine contents before they bid. Henri is in a rather contentious bidding war with another would be buyer, but emerges victorious while Josie picks up a couple of units.  The interesting part is examining the contents for value.  This time around, there’s a pile of costume jewelry, along with one piece that may not be imitation.  Henri has also come across some theatre posters, which are potentially valuable if Josie can identify the artist.

Then Josie gets a frantic call from Leigh Ann:  Henri has not come home. It turns out that Henri may never have left the auction site—and someone wants to cast suspicion on Josie.

Somehow I’m always surprised at how very good these books are. Each book imparts some fascinating tidbits of information about antiques and collectibles but it never feels forced; sometimes knowing about the antiques may provide some information about the crime, as well.  I’ve often found myself as intrigued about the antiques as I am about the murder.  I had no idea that some early theatres commissioned posters from local artists to promote the films, nor did I realize that in the case of jewelry, some artists’ drawings for pieces can be kept on file for decades. Yet the author never lets this aspect bog the story down, but keeps things moving.

Cleland is old school in her mysteries, skillfully planting clues so that an attentive reader does have a chance to figure it out.  Josie is an appealing character, friendly and knowledgeable without coming across as all-knowing.  Her involvement with crime is also done in a more organic way than in some mysteries.   I also appreciate the way that Cleland avoids so many cozy clich├ęs.  Her heroine is a businesswoman with a good head on her shoulders, dealing in merchandise worth tens of thousands of dollars. She’s sensible, independent, but a good friend. She’s in a stable relationship with Ty Alverez, a Homeland Security officer. She’s also not foolhardy; you won’t see her slipping around in a diaphanous gown to investigate the screams in a basement. A scene that particularly delighted me was that when the police bring Josie in for questioning.  Even though the interrogator is a long time friend, Josie asks to speak to her lawyer.  Yes!  That’s exactly what one should do.  I know this because I read Nancy W.’s review of Behind Bars:  Surviving Prison.  (You can read it here—and it’s definitely worth the read!) As a long-time admirer of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, I also love the little Wolfian tidbits she drops into the books.

As I said in an earlier review, the Josie Prescott series is Antiques Roadshow meets Agatha Christie—and I mean Christie specifically for the way clues tend to be delivered, buried somewhere in casual conversation.  In short, this is a well-written, entertaining classic mystery with solid characters, good plots and oh, yes, a cat.  However, the presence of Hank the Maine Coon did not influence this favorable review—at least, not much.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Nevermore: Year Zero, Once Upon a Secret, Mistress, Ice Princess

Year Zero by Ian Buruma was a highlighted book in this week’s Nevermore Book Club.  The year in question is 1945, the end of World War II.  While in the U.S. the end of the war was greeted with joyous celebration, reactions were mixed around the rest of the world.  For many, the end left confusion, uncertainty, and continuing hardship.  The book is divided into thematic chapters; “Hunger” points out that for many places in Europe and Japan the end of the war didn’t mean an instant return to plenty. Food remained scarce and many places were unable to increase food production quickly.  People literally starved to death.  “Going Home” discusses what happened to the displaced people who had been made to leave either by necessity or by force as they tried to make their way back, searching for family. In some cases, there were reunions, while in others there was no one left to find, nor any identifiable structures where a home had once been.  Our reviewer was quite impressed with the way the author has structured the book and is finding it a fascinating read.

Another reviewer was praising Joseph Ellis for his approach to history in Revolutionary Summer. She had picked up the book after a previous recommendation from Jud.  Ellis takes a look at the summer and fall of 1776, after the Declaration of Independence but before anyone has any real idea whether or not this war will be won by the rebels or by the British.  Ellis manages to make the reader look at the situation anew, without seeing the outcome as inevitable.  Ellis is known for his ability to bring history to life and he certainly does so here.

Once Upon a Secret by Mimi Alford is the memoir of an affair with President John F. Kennedy.  Mimi Beardsley Alford was an 18 year old intern when she arrived in Washington, D.C. and caught the eye of the President.  The affair was conducted with the cooperation of the some White House staff, with Mimi being directed when and where to make herself available.  Nevermore spent some time discussing the history of presidential extra-martial affairs, which seems a long if not honorable tradition. As for the book in question, our reader thought it was tastefully done and very interesting.

Somewhat coincidentally, the next book up was Mistress by James Patterson and David Ellis.  The main character, Ben, is an investigative reporter whose infatuation with a beautiful woman drives him to uncover the truth about her death.  Our reviewer is enjoying the book in part because Ben’s overactive mind causes him to make wild associations at every turn: looking at a nickel makes him think of Thomas Jefferson, trivia associated with Jefferson and then with various other presidents, for example.

Another Nevermore member is still reading “Nordic Noir,” those detective stories by Scandinavian authors.  She had just finished (and greatly enjoyed) Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg.  The plot centers on Erica Falck, an author who returns to her hometown after her parents’ deaths.  She goes to meet an old friend Alex, only to find the woman in a bath with her wrists slit.   Alex’s parents ask Erica to write an article about Alex, but as Erica begins to do her research she begins to wonder if her friend’s death was a suicide—or murder.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon & Yoko Ono by Jonathan Cott

Reviewed by Kristin

“There are places I’ll remember, all my life, though some have changed.  Some forever not for better, some have gone and some remain….” These are the words that keep going through my head while reading this book.  Fans will recognize “In My Life” by the Beatles from 1965.  It’s hard to believe that was almost 50 years ago.  Okay, that was a little before my time, but I still grew up with the sounds of the 60’s in the background.  Since that time, thousands of books have been published about the Beatles, individually and collectively.  What makes this book different?  Cott first interviewed John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1968 in their London flat.  The author claims a friendship was born, and it was Cott who interviewed the couple on December 5, 1980, just three days before John Lennon was murdered.

Cott explains that he had never transcribed his taped interview of John and Yoko from 1980.  Suddenly, in 2010, he realized that it was coming up on the 30 year anniversary of John’s death.  Thinking that perhaps the tapes could be degraded to the point they might not play, Cott located the tapes and spent ten days transcribing them.

Cott talks about what he was doing in life, and then segues into his observations of John and Yoko, and by extension, the Beatles.  On January 30, 1969, he received a phone call from the Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor alerting him to the fact that the Beatles were planning something.  Indeed, they were planning what would be their last public performance, on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building.  I can only imagine the thrill of the crowd as they craned their necks to see what in the world was happening.  Yes, this has been recounted by many observers, but I appreciated the retelling.

Cott writes about Yoko, both in relation to John and as an individual.  This book delves a little deeper into Yoko’s family background than many others published.  Present at the American bombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, Yoko and her mother and siblings had to move to a rural village, quite a difference from the privileged city upbringing of her younger years.  Continuing with her college years, Cott paints a life of a well-to-do daughter who was given the opportunity to dabble in art and music.  Continuing on, Cott discusses his many interactions with John and Yoko, culminating (for this book, at any rate) with an interview with Yoko in 2012.

If you are a Beatles/John Lennon/Yoko Ono fanatic, this book may not bring much new information to light, but may provide an interesting read.  I give it a “thumbs up” for yet another illuminating window into the lives of John and Yoko.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Magic's Promise by Mercedes Lackey

Reviewed by Holly White

Magic’s Promise is the sequel to Magic’s Pawn, in which we were introduced to Vanyel. As the book opens, we find Vanyel, one of Valdemar’s few Herald-Mages, returning from war, with a weary body and depleted magic.   He needs rest and time to rebuild his stores of power so he heads home to visit his family.  He returns to the entirely different world of familial problems: a mother who smothered him, brothers who looked down on him, women who wanted to seduce him and trap him into marriage, a weaponsmaster who resents him, and a father who despises him.  These things he expected; but in addition he faces an unprecedented temptation. 
He meets Medren, a young boy who reminds him so much of his own self at that age that he fears that the boy will meet the same fate as he himself once did at the hands of his father and the weaponsmaster.  Vanyel feels he must find a way to protect the child from these powerful men who want to train him to be warriors like themselves.  Soon, however, Vanyel discovers that Medren is also Gifted with the Bardic Gift Vanyel once coveted, which causes him to redouble his efforts to keep the men from breaking Medren’s lyre-playing fingers … or from breaking the boy’s spirit.
Needless to say, this keeps Vanyel from getting the rest he needs. Out with his Companion Yfandes,  Vanyel hears a cry of distress from far away, and they race to go to the rescue.  What they find is confusing at best and shocking at worst: a Herald and a small boy who had just been Chosen by a Companion.  And the Herald is beating the Trainee!  The cry they had heard was from the Trainee, a boy named Tashir, who is apparently Gifted in telekinetics.  It appears the child had just killed everyone in the house during a party, including his own entire family.  Vanyel couldn’t understand it.  If a Companion had Chosen Tashir, there was no way the child could be evil, and yet all evidence pointed to the deaths being Tashir’s doing.  The child was so traumatized that he had blocked out most memories of that evening.  What few memories the child could share proved to Vanyel that Tashir’s was a family with as many factions and politics as his own.  On top of that, Vanyel finds himself involved in a family feud that may turn into an all out war.
Not believing Tashir was responsible for all those deaths, or that at worst, he had done so accidentally as a result of not being able to control his Gift, Vanyel has to find a way to protect the boy while he investigates. If someone else is responsible, then Vanyel needs to bring them to justice.  Meanwhile, Vanyel finds himself accused of unsavory intentions which threaten to distract him from finding the truth.
Magic’s Promise started out slowly.  It seemed to me she took too many chapters explaining that Vanyel needed rest and was going home to visit his family even though he dreaded it.  But before it was over, the story was so exciting it was impossible to put down.  I recommend Magic’s Promise to any adult who loves fantasy, adventure, magic, and good vs. evil.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nevermore Gets Historical: Revolutionary Summer, Coup, and How the States Got Their Shapes Too

Summary by Kristin

Jud started off the book club discussion with a couple of non-fiction books, including Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis.  As one of several American history books that Nevermore members have read recently, this book focuses on the summer of 1776.  An outstanding part of this book was noted to be the importance of George Washington, not just as a great general, but as one who held the fledgling country together in a time of great change.  Also, this volume includes a small but important profile of Abigail Adams, as she urged her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” in the newly declared independence.
 Another reader gave a thorough overview of Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal by Keel Hunt.  This was a story of political corruption in the 1970’s when Governor Ray Blanton was planning his last minute political pardons, including a possible pardon for James Earl Ray, assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  A bipartisan effort came together to install Lamar Alexander, the governor-elect, in office earlier than expected, so that Governor Blanton would not have a chance to make his pardons.  Of particular note was that the spirit of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats made Alexander’s gubernatorial term extremely productive.

Rounding out the non-fiction, another reader recommended How the States Got Their Shapes Too: People Behind the Borderlines by Mark Stein.  The previous volume (simply titled How the States Got Their Shapes) spawned a History Channel series of the same name, so the second book delves a bit deeper into the background of the people who purposefully or not, influenced the borderlines between the states.  While Thomas Jefferson is spread across much of the map, many other lesser-known individuals are highlighted in the struggle for governance of lands in the New World.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Spider Woman's Daughter by Anne Hillerman

 Reviewed by Jeanne

Officer Bernadette Manualito Chee is having breakfast with some other members of the Navajo police when she witnesses a dear friend being shot.  Joe Leaphorn, the legendary lieutenant, lies gravely wounded as the shooter speeds off. 

 Even though she is relieved of duty, Bernie is determined to fulfill the promise she made to Leaphorn that she would find the one who did this.  She begins by checking his current projects:  Leaphorn had continued to do some investigative work after his retirement as well as some consulting.  This leads her to a museum of Native American artifacts, where he was assisting with appraisals and provenance. The police are also checking through Leaphorn’s old cases to see if someone he arrested holds a grudge.  Then there’s the disappearance of Leaphorn’s girlfriend Louisa, which leads to questions of a domestic dispute.

Aside from the case, Bernie is dealing with family issues.  Her younger sister Darlene is charged with caring for their elderly mother, but Darlene is feeling trapped and rebellious.  She’s making some questionable choices and associating with people Bernie doesn’t approve of, leading to more friction between the sisters.

I was a long time fan of Tony Hillerman.  His books about the Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn introduced me to the fascinating culture and landscape of the Southwest while being extremely well- plotted mysteries.  When I read that his daughter Anne was going to continue her father’s work, I was both hopeful and apprehensive: I wanted more stories about Chee and Leaphorn-- but let’s face it, it’s often very difficult for one writer to duplicate another’s style effectively.

Anne Hillerman solved the problem neatly but using Bernadette as her main character, enabling her to create a fresh perspective and a new “voice.” The style is slightly more emotional and less detached than her father’s, but not jarringly so.  Where Tony would describe a scene and let the reader draw conclusions, Anne is more likely to explain.  She also tackles some issues of reservation life—alcoholism, health, the elderly—which her father treated more obliquely.  Anne uses Bernie’s relationships to good advantage, giving the readers a closer glimpse of Navajo family life but without letting the story lapse into soap opera.

The mystery itself is based partly on events from A Thief of Time, arguably one of her father’s best books, but you don’t need to have read it or any of the previous books to enjoy this one.  The book is well-plotted, but several reviewers said they figured out whodunit early on and found some of the attempts at misdirection to be handled a bit poorly.  I found the villain’s exposition to be more than a little unbelievable—think James Bond baddie explaining his plan in great detail as Bond faces Certain Death—but overall I found this to be a very readable, engaging book and I’ll certainly try her next one.  The writing itself is polished, nicely descriptive without bogging down in detail, and the characters are well done. Like her father, a sense of place is crucial to Anne’s story. Navajo art and artifacts play a pivotal role in the book, and Hillerman does a good job of describing not just the appearance of the items but the emotional connection they have for the Dineh.  She’s also not afraid to shake up the status quo. In short, this is a promising start to a new chapter in the lives of some beloved characters. Finally, I really liked seeing Jim and Bernie happily married, and enjoying  a true partnership.

Spider Woman’s Daughter is recommended for fans of traditional mysteries, especially those with a Southwest or Native American setting.