Friday, January 29, 2016

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Reviewed by Jeanne

In the near future, student historians will have an opportunity to do more than just research a topic from records, videos, or interviews. They can actually go back in time and experience an event or time period first hand.  Of course, going back in time can be a risky business.  Some time periods are inherently more dangerous than others, so certain eras have been off limits.  Now Kivrin Engle is preparing to be the first person to venture back into one of those time periods:  the Middle Ages, much to Mr. Dunworthy’s disapproval. He’s deeply concerned for her safety, but his objections are overridden by an ambitious colleague and Kivrin is transported.  Some hours later, the tech who handled the transport rushes to find Mr. Dunworthy but collapses before he can explain what the problem is. It turns out that he’s very ill and the area is quarantined.  As Dunworthy desperately tries to find someone to check Kivrin’s location, the young student finds herself in a past she’s not as well prepared to face as she had thought. 

The fourteenth century to which Kivrin travels is no land of knights and ladies and courtly love, but a primitive land where the stench of unwashed bodies and a lack of plumbing is enough to make one gag. It’s winter, bitter cold, and despite her hours of study in Middle English, she can’t understand what people are saying—nor they her.  Fortunately, she has a translator implant that kicks in at last, but she’s ill and disoriented, and not sure where she’s supposed to go to be picked up to return to her own time.

She doesn’t know that returning may not be an option.

Most know that I’m a person who likes to read series in order, but I have to confess I failed miserably in this instance.  Like Willis’ scholars, I’ve time hopped all over, and am only now reading the first novel in the Oxford Time Travel series.  Doomsday Book was first published in 1992, and so some of the future appears a bit dated already: no cell phones, for example. This is a minor quibble, however, because where Willis truly excels is in her portrayal of the past. She also is a pro at poking holes in our own expectations of past and future, and does so with touches of both humor and humanity.  The characters are ones we care about and can relate to. 

It’s Willis’ ability to make us feel as if we are actually glimpsing another time and her observations about the human spirit that make her writing so compelling.  Without giving away too much of the plot, I will say that at first I was disappointed that so many chapters were devoted to what was going on with the future team instead of letting the reader in on what was happening with Kivrin in the past, but the two story lines form an interesting commentary on stress and human behavior. 

I wasn’t surprised to find that this book had won the Nebula Award and was co-winner of a Hugo.  In the UK, it’s been reprinted as part of a Science Fiction Masterworks series, but as others have pointed out it works as well as an historical novel.  No matter the category, this is a superior novel that I highly recommend.  As it is, I am still shivering from the descriptions of a fourteenth century winter.

But the real appeal for me is the way Willis upends our expectations.  Like the students, most readers go into an historical book with certain beliefs and preconceived notions. We think we know about life in specific time periods, but much of the fiction and film feature, to paraphrase my college anthropology professor, twenty first century people in historical garb.  In Willis’ story, only Kivrin is aghast that a girl of about twelve is to be married off to a man of 50; only Kivrin is aware of the lack of hygiene, the amount of dirt on people’s hands as they touch food or wounds; only Kivrin questions the status of servants. Her job is simply to observe, not comment or change.  Time and again, she’s tripped up by small things, such as wanting to question her rescuer before realizing that it’s considered almost wanton behavior for an unmarried woman of her station to seek to speak to man privately. Yet with all that is strange, basic human nature is shown to be largely unchanged.  Another hallmark of a Willis tale is the way that the students’ views evolve:  they go to study the “contemps” of an era, abstract ideas of behavior and thought, and they gradually discover they are, after all, individual human beings. They also come to the realization that some of their judgments are based on very different circumstances.  It can be very humbling.

Willis entertains me, educates me, and makes me think.  That’s the mark of a good writer and a good book.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Nevermore: Truth, Wolves, George Washington, Inspector Lynley, and Lights Out

Reported by Ambrea

This week, our Nevermore readers didn’t disappoint with a new and exciting array of novels, starting with The Truth of All Things by Kiernan Shields.  In Shields’ novel, Deputy Marshal Archie Lean spearheads an investigation into the murder of a prostitute in Portland, Main.  Lean thinks the mystery will be an open-and-shut case, until he discovers the victim was killed using traditional methods for killing witches during the Salem Witch Trials.  Now, with the help of historian Helen Prescott and criminalist Perceval Grey, Lean will wade through some of the darkest of New England history to find a killer—and stop another murder.  Although our reader hadn’t yet finished The Truth of All Things, he had very positive comments about Shields’ novel.  He liked the undercurrents of political intrigue and deception; however, he was most appreciative of the fact that Shields, rather than following one mystery, follows many mystery.  Even forty pages from the end, he was curious to see how the author would resolve the final mystery since everything seemed to be all wrapped up with a nice bow.

Next, our readers switched gears and shared Of Wolves and Men by Barry Holstun Lopez.  Lopez, an author and skilled essayist, takes a serious look at wolves and their impact on human civilization, development, myth and folklore.  He examines how wolves have managed to ingrain themselves into many aspects of folklore and myth and, even, modern stories, and reveals how human perception changes from culture to culture and, more importantly, transforms within literature and science.  Our reader was very pleased with her book choice.  She was fascinated by Lopez’s research into literature, history, science and mythology, how he displayed humanity’s experiences with—and perceptions of—wolves and what kind of impact wolves had on the development of society and myth.  She thought the illustrations were especially wonderful, saying the photographs (which were taken by John Baugess) and drawings were absolutely beautiful.

Our reader received George Washington’s Secret Six:  The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution as a Christmas gift last year, and she was incredibly pleased by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s work.  Focusing on the Culper Spy Ring, a top-secret group of six individuals operating under George Washington during the American Revolution, George Washington’s Secret Six offers a glimpse into the beginnings of American espionage.  It was a fascinating book, according to our reader, chock full of illustrations—portraits of the spies who were involved in the Culper Spy Ring, among others—and historical information.  She thought it was interesting to see how history played out, and she was surprised to learn that historians recognize five of the six spies involved, but the last, the only woman in the group, remains a mystery even today.  Overall, she enjoyed the book immensely.

Additionally, our readers checked out Elizabeth George’s novel, A Banquet of Consequences.  Continuing the investigations of Inspector Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers, George’s new book digs deep into the suicide of William Goldacre—and the poisoning of a student at Cambridge.  Havers, looking for redemption after suffering several setbacks in her department, pursues a new thread of reasoning with Lynley and struggle to uncover the link between the two deaths and solve the case before another young life is torn apart.  Darkly twisted and full of suspsense, A Banquet of Consequences received good reviews from our reader.  She said the story wound around “this beautiful, but very neurotic woman,” who was characterized brilliantly, and George’s novel had an excellent buildup with Lynley and Haver’s investigation—and, more importantly, it was gifted with a twist ending that was unexpected, but “very, very good.”

Last, our readers explored Lights Out:  A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel.  In his latest book, Koppel explores a hypothetical reality in which the United States’ power grid is attacked and essentially decimated, leaving the greater part of North America in the dark.  According to our reader, Lights Out is an extraordinary book that provides a highly detailed answer to a simple question:  what would happen if America was left in the dark for weeks at a time?  It’s a frightening possibility that’s incredibly plausible, said our reader.  However, she think that the author could have provided a more detailed examination of what happens not just in the first few days, but within the next several months.  She was left wondering what a further future would have in store.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Knit One, Kill Two by Maggie Sefton

Reviewed by Ambrea

When Kelly Flynn returns to Colorado for her Aunt Helen’s funeral, she suspects the police have found the killer and solved the crime of her aunt’s murder.  But after she learns her aunt withdrew over twenty thousand dollars, Kelly knows something is amiss—something that can’t be explained away by the police.

Plagued by the inconsistencies of her aunt’s demise and the disappearance of family relics, Kelly decides to do some digging of her own—and what she discovers shocks her.  Helen had a secret, a secret that Kelly never expected from her bright, caring aunt.

Knit One, Kill Two by Maggie Sefton is a quick, easy read.  It’s intriguing, splashed with a dash of dark scandal to make it scintillating.  As I was reading, I was curious to see how things turned out for Kelly Flynn as she hunts for a killer and looks to unravel an incredible secret from her aunt’s past.  It’s a decent novel with just a hint of romance—and knitting pointers.

Although I found it easy to pick up Sefton’s novel and jump right in, I was a bit disappointed.  Knit One, Kill Two didn’t hold my attention for long periods of time.  It’s simple, easy-to-read, and it has enjoyable moments, but it’s a book that, once I figured out the mystery and discovered the real killer, I was hard-pressed to actually finish reading the book.

Moreover, I noticed that some of the subplots were left dangling at the end.  There’s no resolution to Kelly’s little side adventure and there’s no real build-up of Kelly and Steve’s relationship (if it could be called that), which I found disappointing.  Not only was I left with more than a few questions by the end of the novel (which, I would hope, the author clears up in her next book), I wasn’t thrilled with the character development.  Many characters, including Kelly, felt a little lackluster, a little stiff like cardboard cutouts.

Overall, it wasn’t a very memorable story and it didn’t beckon to be read immediately.  Luckily, it’s easy to finish in a day—maybe, even an afternoon—and set it back on the shelf.  On the bright side, it actually has a pretty good recipe for cinnamon rolls, so that’s a nice reward for finishing the book (well, that is, if you like to cook).

Friday, January 22, 2016

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Reviewed by Christy H.

Malorie has lived alone in her house for years with her two children. They don’t have running water. They cover all the windows with heavy blankets. The children only have makeshift toys, and must sleep in a cage every night. When any of them do venture outside, for well water mostly, they must do so with blindfolds on. They do all this to protect themselves from the epidemic that took every person Malorie’s ever known away from her. They cannot look outside lest they accidently glimpse the entity that causes anyone who sees it to become violent enough to murder or commit suicide.

            Malorie has lived like this for almost five years. This is the only life her young children have ever known. She has raised them since babies to be cautious, to wake without opening their eyes automatically and most importantly to listen. She has trained them exceedingly well and while she’s had to be harsh at times it was always in their best interest. She worries about their unusual upbringing. She wants them to experience the normal joys of childhood. But Malorie has already decided she will leave the shelter of her home and head out on the river with her children. Blindfolded, of course. Their rigid upbringing and unwavering obedience to their mother has kept them alive but for what? What kind of future can they have as long as they must live this way?

            Bird Box is told through alternating timelines: when Malorie, and the rest of the world, is first experiencing this strange epidemic and later on when Malorie and her children embark on their mysterious journey. As she travels down the river, the reader has no idea where she is going or why she thinks it’ll be safer than the tightly locked up house she was occupying. As she rows, she thinks back to the time when she first arrived at the house. Pregnant and scared, she was welcomed in by the assorted inhabitants.

It’s been a long time since I was itching to get back to reading a book like I was with this one. I enjoy a lot of the books I read but lately they weren’t the “I HAVE to get back to it RIGHT NOW” variety. This one was. It was especially heart wrenching to reach a chapter cliff hanger just as my lunch break was over. While I was more eager to learn about Malorie’s past (what happened to all her housemates?), the river sections definitely had their tense moments as well (and WHERE is she going?). I did think it was odd that she never thought to name her children (she just calls them Boy and Girl) because she doesn’t have time to think of “luxuries” like names. Malorie is constantly worrying about whether or not she’s a good mother and what this kind of childhood is doing to her children. So I just find it a little bit hard to believe that she wouldn’t have named them just to give them some sense of normalcy if nothing else. 

But that’s a minor quibble. It doesn’t take away from the rest of the novel or the growing sense of dread that is slowly building throughout. Malerman has a cinematic way with words and imagery which helped elevate this book to one of the scarier ones I’ve read in a long time.