Monday, October 31, 2016

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Reviewed by Ambrea

In The Night Bookmobile, Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, returns with another haunting story about a young woman and her encounter with a mysterious library on wheels known as the Night Bookmobile.  Found only between the hours of dusk and dawn, the Night Bookmobile houses a comprehensive collection of books on anything and everything that she has ever read.  The narrator, desperate to reconnect with her library, embarks on a journey to find the Night Bookmobile and her memories.

I read The Night Bookmobile at the suggestion of a coworker, and I found I was fascinated by the notion of a library existing that contains every single item that a person has ever read.  Truthfully, I love the idea that every piece of information ever written or read is collected, tucked away in some supernatural library that can only be accessed by the right people.  It’s a concept that has enchanted me for years, since I first encountered the Archive in Jim Butcher’s Dresden File; however, I’m still not sure what to make of the The Night Bookmobile.

Niffenegger’s graphic novel is a curious thing.  It’s not a tragedy, per se, but it isn’t exactly a happy little story about a woman and her library.  It made me think, it made me feel things I’d rather not feel, and it made me question my own mortality—and wonder, what exactly, am I leaving behind when I die?

It’s a bit deeper than I expected.

And, while it’s intriguing, it still left me feeling slightly squeamish.  I mean, as a reader, I love books.  I must have 400 books in my collection at home, not counting the bag I keep packed full of library books or the random copies I keep squirreled away in my desk for a rainy day; however, I don’t believe my adoration of books has ever turned into something decidedly unhealthy.

The narrator of The Night Bookmobile is a young woman who encounters a mysterious library, a collection of books in the back of a Winnebago (sketchy, if you ask me) that reflect each and every book she’s ever read, and it quickly sparks an obsession.  It’s based on a similar tale by H.G. Wells, “The Door in the Wall,” in which a young man becomes consumed by rediscovering the verdant paradise he found behind a mysterious green door.  They have many of the same undertones:  obsession, desperation, an all-consuming need to go back to a time and place that was, in a word, happier.

Like I said, it’s a curious thing and, truthfully, I’m still conflicted.  You see, the narrator takes an action with devastating consequences—and her life is never the same again.  I couldn’t decide if I was bothered more by her decision or by the result, but the entire story raises questions about morality and what really matters in life…and what’s left over for the next generation of readers.

It’s haunting, and, honestly, it made me squirm.  I can’t decide whether I like it, or whether I hate it.  Part of me dislikes it, dislikes the narrator’s actions; however, another part of me is intrigued by the entire thing, by the notion that all books written or read are available somewhere—and that something, however small, is left for the next generation, some semblance of knowledge is always going to exist.

So, yes, I’m conflicted.  As my coworker noted later, The Night Bookmobile is not a book that anyone can read without feeling something, good or bad, and forming a strong opinion about it.

Note:  As Ambrea said, this is a book that leaves a strong impression, either good or bad.  In fact, there were two previous reviews of this book, which you can read here.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Chillers for the Season

 Selections by Jeanne

I’m not normally a horror reader.  Oh, I used to be, years ago, but that was before Richard Matheson’s Hell House aka The Legend of Hell House scared the bejezus out of me and kept me awake a couple of nights. Since then I’ve been cautious about the scary stuff I read because I am now much older and I need my sleep.  I do still pick up the occasional creepy book, especially this time of year.  Here are some I have enjoyed in the past:

Hell House:  Nope, nope, not going to pick this one up again.  The ending is still too vivid.  Matheson’s tale of a group of investigators who spend the night in an allegedly haunted house may be tame by today’s standards, even be considered stale after a legion of books on this theme, but I don’t care.  I’m not going to read it again.  I’m just going to respect it from a safe distance.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson:  Most people like The Haunting of Hill House, but I was drawn to this story of two sisters who are shunned by most of the town over an incident in the past.  Of course, Jackson's story“The Lottery” is an absolute gem; but I also very much like – and often refer to—“One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.”  (For a different view of Jackson, by all means pick up her two domestic humor books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. )

The Seeker by R.B. Chesterton: Graduate student Aine Cahill has a journal written by a female relative who was a friend (and perhaps more) to Henry David Thoreau.   As part of her research, Aine has come to Walden Pond to try to find evidence to corroborate Aunt Bonnie’s story but soon she begins to wonder if there is something else lurking in the woods.  This is one of those books that the minute I finished I tried to find someone else to read the book so we could discuss it.  Extremely well written, atmospheric, and with fascinating characters, this is one I recommend often.  (Chesterton is a pen name for Carolyn Haines, who writes the Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries, but the Chesterton titles are darker in tone and, so far, are standalones.)

The Other by Thomas Tryon:  Another book I read years ago, but which left a strong impression.  The story revolves around young brothers Niles and Holland who live on a farm in New England.  While twins, the two boys are very different in personality:  Niles is sweet natured and cautious, while Holland is daring and reckless, with a cruel streak. But is he responsible for a series of “accidents” around the farm?  This was Tryon’s first novel, but it was followed by another semi-classic horror tale, Harvest Home. He later turned to historical fiction before his untimely death.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill:  After a number of folks on DorothyL recommended this title, I picked it up.  I soon put it back down again. This tale of a young solicitor sent to a remote village to settle an estate was written in the Victorian first person style and just seemed too slow.  A few months later, I picked it up again and was drawn in immediately.  The setting is vivid: a dark, desolate old mansion out in a salt march with the fog rolling in, and a dampness that seems to seep out of the words and straight into the reader’s bones. The ending is abrupt, shocking.  At first I felt a bit cheated, but I certainly remember it; so it certainly fulfilled its purpose.  By the way, if you’ve seen the movie with Daniel Radcliffe, then you have some idea of the atmosphere of the book.  That part was very well done.  However, the movie took a number of liberties, including changing the ending and turning it into more of a standard horror movie.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King: This was King’s second novel after Carrie and I liked it better.  For one thing, it was a dandy modern-day vampire story.  Set in Maine, the story revolves around a small town where two strangers have moved into a house with an unsettling reputation.  Then things really start to go downhill. . . . King has said that the inspiration for the book was wondering what would happen if Dracula moved into to a contemporary American village and the parallels are easy to see. 

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin: Long before the first Game of Thrones book, Martin wrote a number of science fiction/fantasy books, including this gem.  Abner Marsh is a Mississippi steamboat owner whose fleet has been pretty much demolished.  Enter Joshua York, a mysterious gentleman who is willing to bankroll a fantastic new boat. . . but York’s secrecy worries Marsh.  Just what is York hiding? And what plans does he have for this boat? This is another great example of Martin’s ability to take a genre and reform it in new and interesting ways.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Nevermore: Steve Hamilty James Alexander Thom, Trees, Homegoing, and More!

Reported by Jeanne

Nevermore opened with The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton, the story of an ex-con whose early release was orchestrated by incarcerated crime boss Darius Cole.  Mason’s release comes with a price: whenever his special phone rings, he has to follow whatever orders are given.  This taunt thriller, the first in a new series by the award-winning author, lived up to its good NPR review and comes recommended from our reader.

Her next book was the non-fiction title The Story of Sushi:  An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice by Trevor Gorson.  While our reviewer is no fan of sushi, she found the book fascinating.  Sushi chefs apprentice for years, learning very precise techniques of preparation and presentation.  Each ingredient has significance, and each grain of rice must be perfect. The preparation is deeply ritualistic. While she isn’t planning on trying the product anytime soon, she has a great deal more respect for the product and the chefs.

Fire in the Water  by James Alexander Thom is a novel based on an historical event.  In 1865, a group of war-weary veterans, many survivors of Andersonville, were finally ready to head home.  Over 2,000 were loaded onto the Sultana. . . and then disaster struck.  Our reader is a fan of Thom’s earlier historical novels and found this one to be very good as well.  She fact checked parts of the book, and he had done his research.

While the information in What Your Financial Advisor Isn’t Telling You may be sound, our reader didn’t find much of personal interest in this book by Liz Davidson.  She felt it was written for younger people, not folks near retirement or already retired.

New England Bound by Wendy Warren was described as “hard to read.”  Not only is it written in a scholarly manner, but learning about the slave trade in New England was difficult emotionally for our reader.  She was appalled at how much of the economy of the North also depended on slaves and the slave trade, and how deeply involved some of the states were.  She felt it was an important book, covering a part of history that is usually only considered in the South.

Her second book also involved the history of slavery, but this one is historical ficton.  Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi begins in 18th century Ghana where two half-sisters embark on very different lives.  One will marry an Englishman and live quite well, while the other ends up in America as a slave.  The book spans two centuries, with some of the descendants ending up in New York during the 1960s.  Our reader said she felt almost overwhelmed by the book, and recommended it to the group.

Finally, a reader asked if we had ever considered The Hidden Life of Trees.  According to the book by Peter Wohlleben, trees may be much more complex and aware than we know.  Our reviewer felt that the author, a German forester, made a good case for tree communication in this well-written, thought provoking book.  You may never look at trees the same way again!

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris

Reviewed by Jeanne

Thanks to the movies based on the Marvel Comics version of Thor, a good many people have at least heard about Loki, the Trickster God of the Norse.  However, I’d be willing to bet that few of those folks have gone back to read the myths that inspired the comics.

Now Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, seeks to remedy that with a novel which retells these myths—but from Loki’s point of view.  Readers expecting archaic language and a stiff presentation will be surprised at this gossipy, intimate tale.  Loki’s a beguiling narrator, willing to admit his faults, but equally intent on explaining why someone else is to really blame for the way things will turn out.  He presents himself as being the eternal outsider, a bit of Chaos drawn into Asgard by Odin for reasons of his own.  Loki is always trying to fit in, but held back and ill-treated by some of the more suspicious gods.

Or so Loki says.  From the beginning, he tells the reader to trust no one, not even himself, but he does it in such a charming way that the reader can’t really believe he means it.  Or does he?

His view of the gods is, shall we say, less than worshipful.  The stories stick pretty much to the legends, but have that Loki slant to them.  Thor, for example, is a rather dense, no-nonsense muscleman with no sense of humor.  Odin is a master manipulator who seeks to hold onto power and is willing to sacrifice others to do so.  But is Loki telling us the truth?

One just has to open the book and read the character descriptions to know what sort of a ride one is in for, and it’s an absolutely delightful one.  For example, for Bragi Loki says, “God of poetry.  Two words:  expect lutes.”  For Heimdall: “The Watchman. Not a fan.  Has it in for yours truly.”  I was familiar with a good many of the myths already, enough to “get” the description of Hoder (“Balder’s blind brother.  A better shot than you would think.”)  But knowing the myths certainly isn’t a requirement for enjoying this book. A co-worker who was unfamiliar with the Norse myths gave it a try, and she said she found it quite entertaining and a bit enlightening.

And lest you think that it's all fun and games, Harris doesn't alter the prophecy of Ranarok which foretells the destruction of Asgard and the deaths of many of the gods. The Fenris Wolf, the Midgard Serpent, Hel-- all the dread creatures are there.  The knowledge of what may come is pass is always there , lurking uneasily in the shadows.  But is it a certainty?  Is Wyrd set fast?

Harris does a masterful job of giving the Norse myths new life through Loki. She not only knows and understands the Poetic and Prose Eddas,  but she loves them as well.  It shows in the writing.  Witty, fun, but with dark underpinnings, Harris has written a story to delight those with a taste for mythology and fantasy.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

Reviewed by Jeanne

World War I, the “Great War,” is raging.  Desperate for an edge, the Allies have resorted to an unusual form of intelligence gathering:  the dead.  American heiress Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums employed to take down the last reports from those who have died at the front.  It’s a heart-breaking, emotionally draining task, but the information on the German troops is vital.  Ginger’s fiancĂ©, Captain Benjamin Harford, is an intelligence officer with the British army and one of the few who knows about the work of the Spirit Corps.  He’s concerned for Ginger’s safety since the Corps’ secret headquarters is on the Continent, but soon he has another worry: somehow the Germans have learned of this unorthodox method of intelligence gathering and may be targeting the Spirit Corps.  Is there a spy in the camp?

Kowal writes both science fiction and fantasy, and is a Hugo Award-winning author, facts which I was ignorant of before picking up this book.  I like a bit of fantasy, but I’m picky about what I read in that genre and wasn’t sure that this would be a book that would hold my interest, despite many favorable reviews.  It didn’t take long for me to know that this one was a winner; by the end of the second chapter I was definitely hooked.  For one thing, Kowal makes the working of the Spirit Corps very matter-of-fact.  There’s no time spent in convincing the reader that it works or exactly how it works, though part of the latter question is dealt with in bits and pieces later on in the book.  That’s one of my pet peeves with many fantasy or supernatural books:  spending a lot of time convincing the reader that, say, spirit communication is possible.  If I pick up a book which says it’s about a medium who speaks to ghosts, the author shouldn’t spend several chapters trying to convince me it’s possible.  I’ve already bought into the concept by picking up the book based on the jacket copy or (yes, I admit it!) the cover.  

Ginger is a strong heroine, determined and courageous.  She’s also more than a bit headstrong in the grand tradition of American heiresses in the UK.  (Think Cora of “Downton Abbey” or Jenny Churchill.) Characterizations in general are well done, and Kowal touches on some social restrictions of the day with the introduction of a black medium and some Sikh guards.  The bulk of the story is taken up with the search for the spy, who is also a murderer.  Unfortunately, he attacked his victims in such a way that they did not get a good look at his face, so the ghostly reports are of little help.  

Overall, this is a delightful genre-bender of a book that blends mystery, supernatural, romance, and history.  The pace is excellent, moving the story steadily, and for me there were several surprises in store.  I appreciated how the author gave us a fully realized alternate world.  The supernatural felt as real as the trenches. Also, I have no idea whether or not this is the first in a series.  The door is open, but it does well as a standalone novel.  I’d certainly be interested in reading another, but if this is the only one, I’m equally satisfied with it as is.  

I believe this is a book with very broad appeal, and I will be recommending it to a number of people.