Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Nevermore: Nightingale, Lions, Forsytes, and More!

Reported by Ambrea

This week at Nevermore, our readers explored some new books—new to our book club, that is—and even discovered some new favorites with The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Descent by Tim Johnston, and Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.

Our readers first dived into an audiobook copy of U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton.  Twenty years after the disappearance of a four-year-old girl, Kinsey Millhone is asked to investigate the case by Michael Sutton.  Sutton, a college dropout at twenty-seven, may possibly be the only witness in a mystery that’s remained notoriously unsolved for two decades—and Kinsey must help him dredge up a memory she’s not even sure existed in the first place.  Bouncing back and forth in time, following both the original witness of the case and Kinsey Millhone as she seeks to fit together pieces of the puzzle, U is for Undertow is a psychologically intricate thriller that received high praise from our Nevermore reader.  She said it was “absolutely incredible—I love this kind of stuff!”

Next, our readers explored a second novel by Justin Halpern called I Suck at Girls.  Like Sh*t My Dad Says, I Suck at Girls is an uproariously funny narrative.  Chronicling his misadventures with the opposite sex—from first dates to engagement parties, from high school to college and beyond—I Suck at Girls is a poignant memoir about the best and worst of love.  Our Nevermore reader absolutely loved Halpern’s latest book.  Both light-hearted and funny, I Suck at Girls was a comedic adventure of the very best kind—and, having listened to the audiobook, she thought it was hilarious how the author managed to give a different voice for every character.

One of our readers also picked Ghosts of Tsavo:  Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa by Philip Caputo.  Set in Tsavo River Kenya in 1898, Ghosts of Tsavo explores the construction of the Uganda Railway through east Africa—and the lions that brought construction to a grinding halt after killing 140 people.  According to our reader, Caputo’s book has the opportunity to spark an intriguing discussion—especially after the debacle with Theo Bronkhorst, a big game hunter, and Cecil the lion—but our reader found she just couldn’t become enthusiastic about man-eating lions.  She managed to read 135 pages, but she just “couldn’t go any farther.”

Our readers also visited The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, which follows the intersecting lives of sisters Vianne and Isabelle.  Vianne, who must cope with her husband’s departure for World War II, and Isabelle, a rebellious young woman who falls in love—and, subsequently, joins the Resistance—are “separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion, and circumstance, [but] each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom…”  For our Nevermore reader, The Nightingale was an incredible novel.  Although she was initially hesitant to begin Hannah’s novel, having read so many books based in the midst of World War II, our reader was quickly hooked and begrudged having to do anything other than read.

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy also made an appearance at our Nevermore meeting.  Published in a series of three novels from 1906 to 1921, The Fosyte Saga received recognition in 1932 when Galsworthy earned a Nobel Prize in literature “for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest for in [his novel].”  For the most part, Galsworthy’s novel centers on Soames Forsyte—a successful solicitor who lives in London, and a pillar of excellence in his Victorian community—and his wife, Irene.  But beneath the happy façade of their marriage, the Forsytes’ relationship is crumbling into a bitter feud within the family.  According to our Nevermore reader, The Forsyte Saga was excellent.  Although she said it takes some patience to read through the entire series, she said it’s a beautifully written novel that’s well worth reading.

Last, our readers discussed Descent by Tim Johnston.  Chronicling the disappearance of Caitlin Courtland and her family’s desperate search for answers, Descent is an emotional rollercoaster ride that tears the Courtlands’ apart before finally bringing them together again.  Two of our Nevermore members have had the chance to read Johnston’s novel, and they have both given positive reviews:  one reader said he was left speechless by this book, saying it was “very good, extremely good,” while another asserted it was by far the best book she’s read this year

Monday, September 28, 2015

Madam, Will You Talk? By Mary Stewart

Reviewed by Jeanne

Charity is on a trip to Provence with her friend Louise, trying to distract herself.  Her RAF pilot husband Johnny was shot down in the War and Charity is still coming to terms with the loss. She’s a strong woman who isn’t wallowing in grief but who is getting on with her life as best she can.  Louise wants to read and paint, while Charity wants to visit the local historical sites:  Roman ruins, old castles, and such.  

At the hotel she meets David, a charming little British boy who is there with his stepmother. She soon realizes there is something a bit wrong with this set-up:  David seems troubled.  She begins to hear stories that his father is a murderer who may be stalking the boy.  Recklessly, Charity decides she is going to protect David at all costs and is plunged into a breathtaking game of cat and mouse.

Recently, several members of the DorothyL mystery group discussed Mary Stewart and what a strong impression she had made on so many of them growing up, with her exotic locales and strong heroines. I was embarrassed to realize that while I had read and thoroughly enjoyed her Merlin/Arthur books (Crystal Cave, Hollow Hills, Last Enchantment, etc.) I had not read any in the genre for which she was best known, romantic suspense. I decided to rectify that at once.

Madam, Will You Talk? was Stewart’s first novel, and was an instant hit when it was published in 1954.  She went on to write several more novels, including The Moon-Spinners which was turned into a Disney movie.  The writing is lovely and graceful, even when the situation is dire.  Charity is a wonderful character, a smart, mature woman who isn’t afraid to step up when the situation calls for action.  She loves history and poetry—she and Louise were once taught together—so she’s able to beautifully convey the setting. That is a real strength to this book and apparently her others as well: the ability to vividly describe a location without dragging the plot down.  She also peppers the story with quotations and literary allusions but again is able to do so while advancing the story.  

I also enjoyed the unadulterated 1950s flavor.  Contemporary writers who set a story in that time period can’t help but bring a twenty-first century view to it.  They try to unobtrusively explain attitudes and items on the assumption that modern audiences won’t have a clue—or in some cases, to show off how much research they’ve done (my sneaking suspicion).  Since the book was actually written in the 1950s, Stewart is under no such compunction.  In a modern retelling, the Riley that Charity drives so nimbly and expertly would be explained as a particular brand of British Motorcar from a company that began life as the Bonnick Cycle Company in the late 1800s.  Did I need to know that? Nope, I just accepted that it was a car and moved on.  Nor did the author have to omit or make excuses for people smoking constantly and imbibing.  (I’m reminded of a story about the TV series Mad Men which drew comment for the amount of smoking and drinking that went on.  When someone connected with the show spoke with a retired ad man who had worked in that era, the ad man said it was all fairly accurate except that there was even more drinking and smoking.) The plot twists and turns as Charity tries to figure out who to trust and, more importantly, who NOT to trust.  There are exciting car chases through the villages and countryside, around winding streets and into back alleys. I’m not usually one for car chases but these manage to be both tense and interesting. The thing I liked least about the book?  The title. It sounds so formal, not reflective of the lively story. How's that for a minor quibble?

For me, the book certainly passes the test of time and I look forward to reading more by Mary Stewart.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Reviewed by Ambrea

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall recounts the story of Helem Graham, a widowed young artist who has arrived at Wildfell Hall with her young son in tow.  Unknown to the nearby village, she’s reclusive and mysterious and scandalously aloof and, soon, everyone—including Gilbert Markham, a local farmer who finds himself entranced by the lovely newcomer—clamors to know who she is, where she comes from, and why she ever decided to choose Wildfell Hall.  Narrated by both Gilbert and Helen, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall uncovers the extent to which violence, abuse, excess, and tyranny were tolerated within marriage and polite society—and the extreme measures which one woman will take in protecting her child and declaring her own independence.

Anne Brontë created a true classic in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Besides investigating a topic rarely discussed in polite Victorian society—and causing quite a stir in the process—Brontë crafts an amazing and compelling narrative that captured my attention immediately.  Between the intimate glimpses into Helen’s diary, as she recounts her most shocking and tragic experiences, and Gilbert’s candid confessions, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall presents a brutally honest picture of life within a loveless marriage and one woman’s shocking bid for independence.

Originally published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a sensational success for Anne Brontë and, unsurprisingly, it also became a literary scandal.  Even Charlotte, who penned Jane Eyre, believed it was too shocking for publication and, after Anne’s death in 1849, prevented its republication.  As Charlotte wrote in the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, she believed Anne made a poor decision in choosing the subject of her novels, having a “naturally sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind:  it did her harm.  She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail…as a warning to others.”

Although Anne was greatly criticized for her novel, I believe The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of my favorite Brontë novels (with Jane Eyre being the other).  I absolutely love the characters:  their emotions are raw, their thoughts are intimately depicted to their reader, their actions are occasionally impulsive (they’re human, they make mistakes), and their reasoning is sometimes flawed, but I think I enjoyed their stories for much that reason.  Both Gilbert and Helen exist as imperfect individuals, which makes them human and all the more precious for it.

But, if I’m being honest, I loved Helen best.  Gilbert plays a crucial role in the novel and he has merits of his own as a kind, honorable gentleman, especially when compared to some of the other, less savory individuals depicted; however, he generally pales in comparison to the honesty and emotional fortitude of Helen.  Although he claims full and unfaltering loyalty to Helen, Gilbert frequently succumbs to the pressures of society.  He’s very much shaped by gossip and social expectations—and, yes, his mother—and, as such, he often seems to fall into the disappointing habit of embracing gender stereotypes and double standards.

Helen, on the other hand, recognizes her faults and she’s honest about them.  Moreover, she doesn’t shy away from even the most disturbing and unsavory events within her life.  Emotional abuse, alcoholism, illicit sexual affairs, cruelty and violence, and much more appear within the pages of Helen’s diary, as she reveals her history to Gilbert, but she tells him every last secret, every last heart-wrenching detail—and I find that makes her one of the most appealing and, perhaps, the bravest character I’ve ever encountered.

For more information about the criticism and critics of Wildfell Hall, check out:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Nevermore: Donner Party, Lost Lake, Skylight, Villages, and Mysteries!

Reported by Ambrea

This week in Nevermore, our readers explored many interesting books, drifting from journeys on the Oregon Trail with the Donner Party to some excellent fiction by Karin Fossum and Sarah Addison Allen.  Our readers even visited Russell County with Come Saturday by Doris Music and Lisbon, Portugal, with Skylight by José Saramago.

The adventures started with Lisa Unger’s Black Out.  Annie Powers is happy:  she has a wonderful house in an idyllic Florida suburb, she has a husband who loves her and a daughter she loves unconditionally—and life seems wonderful.  Until her past comes back to haunt her.  Besieged by memories she had buried and haunted by a name that she abandoned, Annie must put together the pieces of her past to save herself and her daughter.  Our reader said that Unger’s novel was “unbelievable,” an exceptional novel that she couldn’t put aside.

Our reader also volunteered Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen, which weaves together the stories of Eby Pim, Kate and Devin Pheris, and others who congregate at Lost Lake, “looking for something that they weren’t sure they needed in the first place:  love, closure, a second chance, peace, a mystery solved, a heart mended.”  It involves mother and daughter relationships, as well as the redeeming qualities of love, which our reader said she really enjoyed.

Another reader had an interesting selection of reading material:  Across the Plains in the Donner Party by Virginia Reed Murphy and Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern.  As expected, Across the Plains follows the tragic expedition of the Donner-Reed Party.  After setting out for California, the Donner-Reed Party became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and spent the entire winter of 1846-1847 trapped without adequate supplies.  Starved and desperate, members resorted to cannibalism to survive—only 48 of the original 87 members survived.  Our reader said she was “in awe of the people who survived,” and she was amazed at the ability of pioneer travelers to actually meet on the trail and reconnect with other people.

In Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern has been dumped by his longtime girlfriend and forced to return home with his seventy-three-year-old father.  Sam Halpern, who Halpern describes as being “like Socrates, but angrier, and with worse hair,” is a man without a filter.  He isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind—and, luckily, Halpern had the foresight to record the best of his father’s wisdom.  Sh*t My Dad Says is uproariously funny, according to our reader, and it was an absolute joy to read.  It comes highly recommended from our Nevermore group this week.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf followed next, unfolding a brand new story in Holt, Colorado.  Addie Moore and her neighbor, Louise Waters, have lived alone for many years, now in reconnecting as neighbors—as friends—they brave new adventures in their small town.  According to our Nevermore reader, it rings true of real life.  “You kind of get sucked in [to their lives],” he said.  “You think it goes one way, but it doesn’t.”  Our Souls at Night explores the depth and breadth of human relationships, chronicling senior realities with a gentle comforting that’s enjoyable.  Our reader definitely recommended reading Haruf’s novel.

Likewise, he was impressed by Karen Fossum’s Indian Bride.  Fourth in the Inspector Konrad Sejer mysteries, Indian Bride starts with a marriage—Gunder Jomann, a renowned bachelor in his hometown of Elvestad, visits India for two weeks and returns with a wife—and a murder.  On the day Jomann’s new wife is set to arrive, a woman is found on the outskirts of town and Inspector Sejer must uncover the culprit among the seeming good people of Elvestad.  One reader said, “It was quite good, I thought,” and he was satisfied with how Fossum wrapped things up; however, another reader in our Nevermore group didn’t hold the same opinion.  She felt that Fossum left her dangling with a dissatisfying cliffhanger.

One of our readers also tried to read Villages by John Updike.  Chronicling the life of Owen MacKenzie from his birth in rural Pennsylvania to his retirement in Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts, Villages is a story about one man’s lifelong education and his relationships.  Unfortunately, for our reader, John Updike’s novel was a grave disappointment.  As she reported, it was “awful, absolutely awful.”

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, likewise, didn’t fare so well for another reader.  Sharp Objects chronicles reporter Camille Preaker’s toughest assignment—her return to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls—and her renewed (and rocky) relationship with her estranged family.  For our Nevermore reader, Flynn’s novel was a study in several generations of very damaged, very disillusioned individuals, which intrigued her, but she thought Flynn seemed to put an emphasis on shock value rather than content.

By comparison, José Saramago’s Skylight performed well.  Skylight is series of intertwined stories—Silvestre and Mariana, an elderly couple who have been happily married for a number of years; Abel, a young nomad who has recently found a home; Adriana, a young woman who loves Beethoven; Carmen and Emilio, an unhappy couple who long to lead separate lives; Lidia, a former prostitute turned mistress—that overlap to weave a tapestry of life and relationships in one apartment in Lisbon, Portugal.  Our reader said Saramago’s writing reminded her of Alexander McCall Smith, but the story made her think of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.  Although Skylight seemed to end with a cliffhanger, our reader was glad that she “got to live in Portugal for a little while.”

Last, another of our readers picked up Come Saturday by Doris Musick.  Set in the rural mountains of Russell County during the Great Depression, Come Saturday details the extraordinary events of one Saturday morning at the local mill—and how it changed the county.  Our reader said it was really interesting to slip into the lives of these people, to learn something new about Russell County.  While our reader did say it was an interesting book, she said it would probably be even more fascinating for readers with ties to the area.