Friday, April 28, 2017

Glow of Death by Jane K. Cleland

Reviewed by Jeanne

Antiques appraiser Josie Prescott is called to the home of a wealthy couple to evaluate what may be a Tiffany lamp.  She’s greeted graciously by a woman who introduces herself as Ava Belcher.  The lamp belongs to her husband and is a family heirloom. Josie examines the lamp and finds, much to her delight, the lamp appears genuine: if so, it could command a selling price of $1.5 million. The discovery would also elevate Josie’s standing in the antiques community, making her one of the few to ever authenticate a Tiffany lamp.

A few days later, Ava Belcher is found murdered at her home.  Josie is on the scene, and, since she had spoken with Ava recently, is asked to identify the body while the police try to locate Mr. Belcher.  There’s just one problem:  Josie doesn’t recognize this woman. 

I know I can always count on Jane Cleland for a good mystery tale with plot twists, information about antiques and collectibles, and clues enough to enable me to solve the murder if I pay attention.  I like having an author who plays fair with her readers.  This time around, I learned a lot about Tiffany lamps and about marbles—yes, the kind you shoot—as well as a lesson on valuation, which looks at several variables:  condition, provenance, rarity, scarcity, popularity, and association. All of this is done in a painless manner without slowing down the story.

I also like Josie herself, a smart, independent woman who can make decisions with her head as well as her heart. She’s a shrewd CEO with high ethical standards.  She also has a nifty boyfriend and a stable relationship, which makes a nice change from the “heroine trying to choose between two beaus” motif that has become so prevalent in cozy mystery fiction.  It doesn’t hurt that there’s a Maine Coon cat in the mix as well.

If you’re looking for a good, solid mystery with a strong female lead and like learning some things along the way, this is a great choice.  I always look forward to the next in the series.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Nevermore: Sotomayor, Schlink, Mental Health, McCall Smith, & Suspense

Reported by Ambrea

This week, Nevermore returned with another look at Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World.  Published in 2014, My Beloved World is an intimate and insightful look into the life of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic woman to become a Supreme Court Justice.  Our reader was very impressed with Sotomayor’s memoir, calling it a “lovely, lovely [book].”  Although she enjoyed My Beloved World immensely, our reader noted that she would have preferred reading a print copy of the book instead of the Kindle edition.  She noticed the Kindle lacked pictures and translations, which she found detracted from the overall book; however, she said she still loved reading it and it only improved her appreciation for Sotomayor’s work.  “I liked [Sotomayor] before, and I like her even more now,” she told her fellow readers.

Next, Nevermore looked at The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink, a fascinatingly complex story of love and lust and obsession that begins with a simple portrait.  The story features an artist, the woman whose portrait he painted, her husband, and the young lawyer who becomes entangled in their lives.  Together, they tell the story of a moment—and a portrait—that changed all of their lives.  Our reader admitted that Schlink’s novel wasn’t his usual fare, saying it was “very different, but very good.”  He noted it had great character development and a rich, poignant story that appealed to him.  He highly recommended it to his fellow readers.

Nevermore also explored No One Cares about Crazy People:  The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America.  Written by Ron Powers, No One Cares about Crazy People is simultaneously an examination of the history of mental healthcare and a candid memoir on his sons’ respective struggles with mental illness.  Powers offers an intimate portrayal of his sons, Dean and Kevin, as they confronted their twin diagnoses of schizophrenia.  Our reader said she was fascinated by No One Cares about Crazy People, noting it incorporated both solid statistics on mental healthcare and personal anecdotes on the toll mental illness takes.  As the cover notes, Powers’ book is “a blend of history, biography, memoir, and current affairs...a thought-provoking look at a dreaded illness that has long been misunderstood.”  Our reader said it was very good, and she hoped to hear more from Powers in the future.

Next, Nevermore decided to share an enthralling psychological thriller:  The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney.  In The Girl Before, Emma stumbles across One Folgate Street in pursuit for a new apartment and falls in love.  Minimalist and seemingly safe, One Folgate Street feels like a perfect fit for Emma who is still reeling from a traumatic break-in; however, she quickly discovers the enigmatic architect has a strange set of rules—and change her forever.  Jane, like Emma, finds One Folgate Street in her search for a fresh start and she’s immediately drawn to the house and its creator.  But as Jane settles into her new abode, she will discover terrible secrets about One Folgate Street and the girl who lived there before.  Our reader picked up The Girl Before on a whim and found an incredibly fascinating page-turner in the process.  She said, “The book made you think…and [it] also fools you.”  With its unexpected conclusion and thrilling, suspenseful story, The Girl Before is an excellent book for fans of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl.

Like The Girl Before, A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George draws readers in with a suspenseful story and buried secrets.  In George’s novel, Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers are investigating the suicide of William Goldacre—and a poisoning in Cambridge.  In their pursuit to find links between this unexpected suicide and equally grisly murder, Lynley and Havers find that behind the peaceful fa├žade of country life is a terrifyingly dark world of desire, deceit, and desperation.  Our reader said she absolutely adores Elizabeth George and, likewise, she enjoyed this latest psychological thriller by such an accomplished mystery writer.  Although she wasn’t fond of the conclusion, she noted that the story kept her on her toes.  Complex and thoughtful, A Banquet of Consequences proved to be a thrilling adventure for our reader.

Rounding out our reading at Nevermore, one of our members shared My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith.  In his most recent standalone novel, McCall Smith tells the story of Paul Stewart, a writer who exchanges his stressful city life for the idyllic countryside of Montalcino, Italy.  When Paul arrives in Italy, he thinks this will be his chance to finish his long overdue book; however, after he arrives, he discovers no rental cars are available and he has no way of reaching his destination!  Until a stranger offers him an unexpected alternative:  a bulldozer.  Amusing and sweet, My Italian Bulldozer was a witty, light-hearted novel with wonderful characters and hilariously unpredictable adventures.  Our reader said she enjoyed reading My Italian Bulldozer.  It was lovely, light reading that hit just the right note and brightened her day, and she highly recommended it to anyone looking for an easy, uplifting book.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood

Reviewed by Rita

If you had to choose the book that matters most to you, what would it be? That is the question that sparks Ava’s journey of self-discovery.

Ava is still reeling from her husband of twenty-five years leaving her for another woman. It‘s been a year since Jim left, but considering he and his much younger mistress live in the same neighborhood as Ava, it is proving difficult for her to move on. Her two children are both grown and living out of the country which is a great source of worry where her daughter, Maggie, is concerned.

Ava’s best friend, Cate, is in charge of a monthly book club at the local library and Ava decides the book club is just the distraction she needs. During her first club meeting, Cate announces the theme for the year is going to be The Book That Matters Most. Ava struggles to think of a book that has mattered most in her life. When it’s her turn to choose when she finds herself giving the title of a book that she hasn’t thought of since childhood. When Ava was a child her younger sister, Lily, died in a freak accident. A year later, Ava lost her mother who could not cope with the loss of her daughter. It was during this time that Ava read From Clare to Here - the book that mattered most to her. The only problem is no one can find any copies of this book. Ava has promised the club a visit from the author, Rosalind Arden, only to discover that she cannot be found either. Ava begins to search for the author and ends up finding more than she ever expected.

The book alternates between Ava’s story and her daughter Maggie’s. Maggie is supposed to be studying abroad, but instead finds herself in a dangerous relationship with an older man in Paris. This is where I struggled with this novel. While the two storylines are eventually brought together, they felt really disconnected right up until the end. I wasn’t really that interested in Maggie’s pernicious escapades in Paris. I didn’t feel like Maggie’s arc furthered the storyline and even when it was all tied together it fell flat for me. I started out optimistic but was ultimately underwhelmed.

Friday, April 21, 2017

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Reviewed by Kristin

Rosie Walsh didn’t expect to fall in love with Penn Adams.  Set up by a friend of a friend, Rosie was a first year resident in the Madison, Wisconsin ER while Penn was a struggling writer working on what he would eventually call the “DN”—his damn novel.  Fast forward several years and they find themselves parents to five little boys.  They are a loving family who embrace the peculiarities of each and every child: Roosevelt, or “Roo”; Benjamin; twins Rigel and Orion; and lastly, Claude.

From the time that Claude could express himself, he was different from his brothers.  He spoke his first word at nine months: “baloney.”  (Not that the pediatrician believed them, but Claude did indeed form coherent syllables about a brother’s favorite lunchmeat.)  He was speaking in complete sentences by his first birthday and communicating his thoughts, feelings and desires to anyone who would listen.  A bright and precocious child, Claude rounded out the Walsh-Adams family perfectly.

There’s just one little unexpected bit—when Claude grows up, he wants to be a girl.

Penn and Rosie are supportive of all of their children; they are perfectly willing to let Claude choose his own clothing and accessories, even if those choices might be a dress fashioned out of an older brother’s long t-shirt, sparkly barrettes, or a red patent leather purse made into a lunch tote.  As Claude’s Pre-K year stretches on, he becomes more aware of the gender norms to which he is expected to conform while at school, and withdraws into himself.  Rosie and Penn become concerned as Claude grows sadder and sadder as he struggles to reconcile external expectations with how he, or possibly she, feels.

After much soul searching, the family decides to relocate to Seattle, which they believe will be a more liberal and accepting town.  Claude goes to Kindergarten as Poppy, a bubbly and happy little girl.  As Poppy blooms, her family struggles not with loving her as she is, but with the secrets kept from the outside world.  Where is the line between what is nobody’s business, and the truth about who someone is?  The Walsh-Adams family finds that it hurts to keep secrets, and secrets cannot be kept forever.

Frankel wrote this story of a family with a transgender child in a loving and sensitive manner, based on her real-life experiences.  Frankel has commented in interviews that This Is How It Always Is is not a retelling of her family’s story but that it does incorporate elements of her daughter’s experience.  At the time of publication in 2017, Frankel’s daughter was still much younger than Poppy is by the end of the book, so it is not entirely biographical, but looks ahead to the choices that must be made when a child’s gender identity does not match their outer appearance.

Frankel’s writing is fluid and moves the narrative along in a way that kept me completely involved in the story.  I appreciated the love of parents who cared infinitely more about the safety and stability of their children than about what other people thought.  As a writer, Penn created a bedtime tradition with all the children piling onto one bed or another, telling a story that never ends, fashioning princes, witches and night fairies living in the forests and hillsides.  This sense of magic is imbued in Frankel’s latest, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nevermore: Un-American, POWs, Hidden Figures, Trigger, Sotomayor, Girl Before, Roanoke Girls, Grandma Gatewood

Reported by Kristin

Nevermore met in one of the rooms of the Jones Creativity Center this week.  The verdict: a very nice space with much more light than the usual Frances Kegley conference room, and the Blackbird doughnuts and coffee were tasty as always.

Moving beyond Blackbird and onto books, our first reader introduced Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II: Images by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Other Government Photographers by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams.  In 1942, the United States government hired these noted photographers to photograph the internment camps which were becoming home to over 120,000 Japanese Americans.  While this was supposed to be positive publicity, showing what nice places the camps were, the photographers did not always comply.  Some of their images were suppressed by the Army and only recently released.

The same reader continued with The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell.  Describing one particular family in the book, he discussed how a German family from Cleveland was sent to the Crystal City camp in Texas.  First, the father was held as an enemy alien and separated from his family.  Eventually, they were given the chance to reunite if all of them went to Texas, with the condition that they might even be involved in a prisoner exchange during the war.  Even though the children were born in the United States, the entire family ended up in Germany where they were despised as “Americans.”  Our reader was fascinated as this was part of history with which he was not familiar.

Several readers have been enjoying Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly, the book that inspired the newly released movie.  This is a compelling story of the African American female mathematicians who calculated trajectories and timing to put spacecraft into orbit, and more importantly, bring them and their human cargo home again.  Most Nevermore readers have enjoyed the volume, but the current reader was just a bit disappointed that pictures of the historic women were not included.

Next up was Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher.  Focusing on Gavrilo Princip, who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and sparked the first World War, Trigger also discusses that there were several plots to assassinate the Austro-Hungarian heir that day.  Our reader noted that the first plaque posted on the spot condemned Princip, then was later changed to call him a hero.  Now, a brief sign low to the ground simply states the facts: “From this place on June 28 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.”

Continuing in non-fiction, three readers have recently read My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomeyer.  As only the third woman and the first Hispanic appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Sotomeyer writes of her childhood in the Bronx and the struggles she faced as she became a college graduate, a lawyer, a judge—all on the way to sitting on the highest bench in the land.  Our readers loved it, were so impressed by what she overcame, and were struck by the fact that Sotomeyer’s mother had found it important to buy the Encyclopedia Britannica so that her children could learn.

Turning now to fiction, our next reader enjoyed The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel.  Set in rural Kansas, the novel is based on multiple generations of teenage girls growing up in the family’s sprawling farmhouse.  Reviewers have compared this to a modern day Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews.  Our reader said that it was suspenseful, read quickly, and definitely kept you guessing till the end.

“Girl” titles have been very popular in the publishing business lately, additionally evidenced by the next book, The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney.  Jane (the girl in the present) and Emma (the girl before) alternate storytelling in this murder mystery.  Recommended for fans of Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, this well written book was much enjoyed by our reader.  She said that there were “no wasted words,” always a sign of a good book.

Finally, our last reader had high praise for Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery.  In 1955, sixty-seven year old Emma Gatewood walked the trail alone with a homemade gunnysack thrown over her shoulder and no more than a shower curtain for a tent.  As Gatewood became well known, her advocacy may have saved the trail from fading into history.  Gatewood walked the trail not once, but two additional times.  Our reader very enthusiastically said, “If you have not read this book, you need to read it!”

Monday, April 17, 2017

Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffith

Reviewed by Jeanne

It’s December 1951 in Brighton, and the city is gearing up for the holidays.  This year the pantomime will be Aladdin, featuring no less than magician extraordinaire Max Mephisto as the villain, a role Max embraces with something less than enthusiasm.  It’s a step down in his career, but it seems that magic shows as entertainment are falling out of fashion in this post WW II era.  At least he will be able to visit with his former comrade in arms, Edgar Stephens, who is now a police detective. 

The reunion is overshadowed when DI Stephens is called to investigate the murders of two children whose bodies were found in the snow, surrounded by candy—a sort of real-life Hansel and Gretel.  The girl, Annie, was fascinated by fairy stories and had written plays based on the Brothers Grimm—the dark versions, not the sanitized ones favored by modern audiences. When it appears there may be a link to an earlier murder connected to a theater, Stephens asks Max to use his theater connections to investigate.  

This is the second entry in Griffith’s Magic Men Mystery series, and I found it much more satisfying than the The Zig Zag Girl; much time was spent a detailing characters’ backgrounds and their service which made character development lag somewhat.  Since complicated yet believable characters are the main reason I read her Ruth Galloway Mysteries, I was a bit disappointed with the first book. Smoke and Mirrors, however, combines an intriguing plot with characters of depth and complexity.  The supporting cast played more significant roles and became much more memorable. I especially liked Emma Holmes, a young woman who is trying to make a career as a police officer at a time when it is very much a man’s profession and women are expected aspire to marriage and children. Max and Edgar emerge as more fully realized characters for me this time around.  As before, Griffith does a good job of capturing the feel of the era but she does it a bit more subtly this time around.

I’ll be looking forward to The Blood Card, due out this fall.