Monday, March 30, 2015

Arsenic and Old Books by Miranda James

Reviewed by Jeanne

Librarian Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon cat Diesel are hard at work in the college archives when Mayor Lucinda Long drops off a treasure:  the Civil War diaries of a Long ancestor.  They're a gift for the archive.  Charlie is delighted with such a piece of local history, but his pleasure is short lived when he is accosted separately by two different women, both demanding instant access to the fragile old books.  The first woman is a reporter who seems to feel that the diaries will play a role in an upcoming election, while the second is a history professor anxious for tenure.  Charlie's explanation that the books will be unavailable for public viewing until they have been properly assessed for damage does nothing to mollify either woman, both of whom seem determined to be the first to view them.

When Charlie returns from lunch, he finds the question of access may be beside the point: his office has been broken into and the diaries are gone.  What could possibly be in those 150 year old books?  Is it something someone wants to find-- or something someone wants to keep hidden? As William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead  It isn't even past."

Arsenic and Old Books is the sixth in the line of the Cat in the Stacks  mysteries  by Miranda James but the first to appear in hardcover.  Charlie Harris is a good-natured, gentle man who returned to Mississippi to take care of an elderly aunt after he became a widower.  He has a romance going with Helen Louise, the local baker, and has two grown children who are in and out of his house as is the long-time housekeeper, Azalea. Of course, Diesel steals most of the scenes: like his master, he's a good-natured gentle giant of a cat who loves his food.  He's over thirty pounds and usually startles folks with his size.  While Diesel doesn't solve any mysteries, he makes this cozy-- well, a bit cozier.  

The series is long on Southern charm, descriptions of food, and interaction with Diesel, but James does keep track of the mystery as well.  Many of the solutions to the mysteries lie in the connections between long-time residents and the history of the place, making this a very good cozy mystery.  I thought this one had an especially good flow, and kept the pages turning while I tried to figure out what was in those diaries.  If you haven't read any of the previous books in the series, this would be a good place to start. It also features a bonus short story telling how Charlie met Diesel.

Interesting aside:  Miranda James is the pen name of Dean James, who does work in a library and lives in Mississippi. He has just begun a spin off series The Southern Ladies Mysteries featuring two elderly sisters who have appeared in some of the Cat in the Stacks books.  The first title is Bless Her Dead Little Heart.

"If you ask me, the Maine Coon needs to be a lot furrier. Just my two treats' worth!"

Friday, March 27, 2015

Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, by Barry Mazor

Reviewed by William Wade

Most Bristolians know Ralph Peer as the man who came to our city in August 1927 and recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in what is known today as the “Bristol Sessions.”  Where Peer came from beforehand and what he did afterword is not generally known.

And this is the value of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,by Barry Mazor, a splendid new biography which reveals the full and fascinating life of its subject.  And let it be said clearly and emphatically at the beginning: the “Bristol Sessions” was a landmark in the history of popular music in America.  It would be hard to over-estimate its importance.  It established the careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, it made Bristol what our museum proudly proclaims, the “birthplace of country music in America,” and it gave Ralph Peer the opportunity to become nationally and internationally known as a major figure in the music publishing business.

Peer recognized that the artists he was recording needed opportunities for their names to be put before the public, and he formed the Southern Music Publishing Company to see that their recordings became popular.  An appendix to Mazor’s book has an incredibly long list of the artists who gained fame through his efforts.   In addition to the Carters and Rodgers they included Fats Waller, Ernest Stoneman, Blind Willie McTell, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Memphis Minnie, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmie Davis, Desi Arnaz, and a slew of other country, blues, and jazz artists.

During the late 1930s and World War Peer traveled to Mexico and began introducing Latin music and their artists.  During the entire time, working with Alan Lomax, he continued his search for the origins of some of the traditional songs that seemed to be a part of the American tradition.  In November 1932 a group  of reporters sang “Home on the Range” to newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt; soon afterward Bing Crosby launched it and it became immediately popular.  No one seemed to know its origins, and it was thought to be in the public domain.  With a little investigation Peer discovered that the Southern Music Publishing Company had bought the copyright a few years before.

After World War II Peer went international, traveling through Europe, collecting artists and songs for his ever-spreading musical repertory,  On one occasion, traveling through Communist occupied East Germany, Russian agents seized his collection of music manuscripts, suspicious that they contained secret encoded messages. In later life he established the Ralph Peer Award to be given to an outstanding promoter of country music.  Surely Bristolians  must feel that the award had gone full circle when the 1955 recipient was Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Mazor says of the event, “With his musical mixture of honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, folk balladry, gospel, and pop, Ford was a perfect exemplar of Peer’s notion of what a popular roots music star could be.”

Nashvillian Barry Mazor is an ideal author for this book.  An experienced reporter in the field of music journalism, he has written for several magazines and  newspapers and is the author of Meeting Jimmie Rogers, which won Belmont University’s “Best Book on Country Music Award.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nevermore: Mrs. Adams in Winter, Rule of Four, Beyond Belief, Twelve Years a Slave

 Summary by Meygan

Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O’Brien was recommended. In 1815, Louisa Catherine Adams along with her son left St. Petersburg to meet her husband in Paris. She traveled by herself for over a 1,000 miles. The Nevermore reader states this book is about so much more than her travels. Even though the descriptions about the villages get a bit tedious, there are great descriptions and lots of history provided about St. Petersburg. The reader said the book also tells you so much about the aftermath of Napoleon’s battles. Even though this book isn’t considered a page turner, it is still interesting. 

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason was re-read by one of our Nevermore members and was enjoyed even more the second time around! This book is about seniors at Princeton who are working together to reveal the secrets of the 500 year old text Hypnerotomachia. There are also two murders that take place within the story, causing the reader to not only piece together the information about the text but to also help solve “whodunit”. It was enjoyed so much because the story had a lot of references to courses she had in graduate school, but it was mainly enjoyed because of the writing quality. She said the writing was of a higher quality than most contemporary books. She also likes the imagery. 

Next was Emlyn Williams’ Beyond Belief. This is a non-fiction book about the Moors murders that happened in Britain in the 1960’s. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley killed three (some say 5) people between the ages of ten and seventeen. They had no motives; they were just cold blooded killers. This book delves into the murders and touches briefly on a woman’s point of view of being involved in murder. The reader said those parts reminded her of the Manson murders and what exactly caused the women to participate in the killings. She said she realizes why Myra helped Ian kill the children—she never felt connected to him and she finally had control of him once he involved her in the first murder. She said there were mixed reviews about the book on Amazon. Some reviewers said the story didn’t make any sense at all and some said it made perfect sense. 

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup was highly praised by a Nevermore member. This is the true story of a slave who actually was a free man, but he was kidnapped and sold to the south. It isn’t until twelve years later that he is set free, thanks to a person who was willing to take a risk and help him. The reader said the story is so incredible because of how something like that could have happen and did happen. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

Reviewed by Kristin

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer is one of those page-turners that I just couldn’t stop reading.  Irene Sparks and George Dermont have been arcing through their lives separately, not knowing that their mothers planned their meeting before they were born.  Netzer’s characters have such quirky, appealing personalities.  In a world that recognizes differences are what make us special, these two non-conformists shine brighter than the stars.

Irene is a serious scientist, an astronomer who has created infinitesimal black holes in her lab in Pittsburgh.  With this breakthrough, the world-famous Toledo Institute of Astronomy invites her to join their ranks.  George is also a research fellow and instructor at the Institute, but with a dreamy outlook and a desire to find the reality of God through the immense reaches of the physical universe.

As Irene moves back to Toledo to accept this prestigious position, her mother has just died from a fall down the stairs.  Irene hadn’t spoken to her for years, as her mother had immersed herself deeper and deeper into her astrological beliefs while Irene moved forward with her unsentimental scientific research.

George had been told by a psychic that he was destined to be with a brown haired astronomer whom he would meet in Toledo.  After dating almost every available brunette at the Institute, George sees Irene at the annual welcome banquet and in an instant, he realizes, “It’s you.”  For George, their fate is locked.  Irene, well, she’s not so sure.

Irene and George struggle with knowing each other and discovering the multifaceted layers of their histories.  Are they truly meant to be together?  Or has this all just been a tangle created by their mothers more than two decades earlier?  Writing not just a love story, Netzer weaves together a story with beautiful language that shows how two unusual people learn to make sense of their lives, the world and the universe.

Netzer’s previous book, Shine, Shine, Shine is another beautiful novel that mixes socially awkward people and love. Read that review here.

To experience a fresh voice in new fiction, explore the worlds created by Lydia Netzer.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kittens Can Kill by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

When animal behaviorist Pru Marlowe makes a house call, she expects to take a new kitten for a wellness check and perhaps dole out advice on litter boxes and scratching posts.  She does not expect to find a man dead from undetermined causes.  David Canaday, the deceased, was not a known animal lover, so it strikes Pru as a bit odd that his middle daughter decided to fly in from California to gift him with a kitty. The three Canaday sisters aren’t exactly a warm and loving family, and suspicion heats up when it comes out that their lawyer father may have been planning to change his will. Still, a lawyer makes many enemies so it could be someone else had it in for dear ol’ dad.  Pru is willing to let them fight it out until the eldest daughter demands the kitten be put down. Then her interest becomes personal.

Pru has a few advantages when it comes to an investigation.  Even though Jim her cop boyfriend (of sorts) isn’t exactly forthcoming about the case, she has some of her own sources:  Pru is an animal psychic who hears what every bird and beast has to say.  Interpreting what they say is another matter entirely.  Animals have their own interests and preoccupations, and generally aren’t interested in the doings of humans if it doesn’t impact them directly.  The other part is that Pru generally tries to understand their answers from a human point of view, which can lead to misunderstandings.
The other problem is turning conversations off, which Pru can’t do.  She hears courting sparrows and disgruntled dogs, hungry predators and frightened prey.  Doctor Doolittle, it ain’t.  That’s part of the reason that Pru tends to hit the bottle a bit more than she should, and is more than a little reluctant to let her boyfriend get too close.  She’s terrified of others discovering her secret; after all, the first time she realized she was hearing animals talk, she checked herself into a mental hospital.

The result is an interesting mix of hardboiled noir mystery and supernatural cozy.  It’s definitely grittier than your average cozy.  Pru’s life was difficult enough before; this odd ability only complicates things further.  She still has a self-destructive streak and a prickly personality.  She drinks too much, she tries to push away those who, like Jim, care about her—except for Wallis, her opinionated tabby cat who never pulls her punches and who never sugarcoats anything. Wallis and Pru communicate on a much higher level, though there are still things neither understands about the other.  On the other hand, Simon doesn’t wallow in explicit details of death, sex, or gastrointestinal disorders as some darker mysteries feel compelled to do.  I was heartened to see in this installment that Pru is starting to come to terms with some of her problems; it’s a first step, a crack in the character’s hard exterior.  

As with the earlier entries in the series, some of the most interesting characters are non-human.  Wallis the tabby is as imperious as her namesake the Duchess of Windsor and has very definite views on things.  She’s also not amused when Pru brings the upset kitten home with her; Ernesto is very much a toddler still, obsessed with play and looking for Mama.  Bitsy the Bichon who prefers to be known as Growler is another who has very firm views but who is kept in check by an owner to whom the little dog is just another possession. This time readers are introduced to a sheltie who is seeking her purpose in life now that her person is gone.  Biscuit, like most working breeds, needs something to do with her time, but her present owners are oblivious. However, I want to point out that the mysteries are solved via non-psychic means:  no animals name the murderer or give Pru clues.  What they do is remind Pru that most crimes come from the most primal of impulses, from competition for a mate, defense of territory or from a perceived threat, desire for resources, or the like. We are all animals after all.

As with most of the best books, Simon gives the reader more than just a mystery.  It’s an exploration of the relationships between people and animals, both domestic and wild, and how one can impact the other in unexpected ways and sometimes unhappy ways.  Food for thought! 

Kittens Can Kill can be read as a standalone book, but if you enjoy character development you’ll want to start with an earlier book in the series.  The titles are:

Full disclosure:  I was sent a copy of the book by the author but that did not influence my review. It did, however, give me an idea for a photo op with blue eyed Bonnie who was not in a cooperative mood.