Monday, July 31, 2017

The Hidden People by Allison Littlewood

Reviewed by Jeanne

When Albert (Albie) meets his young cousin Lizzie at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, he’s quite taken with her shy manner and blonde curls.  Her country manners are even charming, though Albie’s father makes it plain that he is less than enthused with this visit from their Northern relatives, with their thick accents and familiar manners. 

Several years pass.  Albie has married well, and joined his father in business. Then one evening at dinner, his father announces that Lizzie has died—and at her husband’s hand.  Even more shocking is the method:  she was burned alive because her husband thought she was a changeling.

Absolutely horrified, Albie sets out for the village of Halfoak to find out what really happened to that beautiful young woman.

Having just finished one book with a changeling theme (The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell), I was a bit bemused to find yet another new book with that motif.  The two are quite different, however. Campbell’s story is set in the present, and told from the point of view of Luke, a young man who discovers  he may not be who he thought he was.

With The Hidden People, the narrator is a Victorian gentleman venturing out among the rude country folk.  He finds it difficult to believe that the villagers truly subscribe to beliefs in fairies, potions, and spells and yet regards them with a great deal of condescension. He vacillates between being rapturous at the beauty of the countryside in the hot, lush summer, and feeling that he’s trapped in a hellish backwater. His investigations lead him into a tangled web, until he himself is not sure what he believes—and neither does the reader.

With a lot of twists and turns, many details of Victorian life, and vivid descriptions, the book is better suited for those who enjoy historical novels than modern horror readers.  There are some definitely unsettling parts, but the book’s leisurely pace would make an impatient reader skip over to the end.  Littlewood has certainly done her research and I enjoyed the nineteenth century feel of the tale. I also liked the folklore brought into the story. The author skillfully shifts perceptions, sometimes through Albie’s changing views but also allowing room for a more objective reader’s vantage:  I found myself holding my breath at points, wondering if Albie was losing touch with reality or if he was finding greater truths.

There was some resolution at the end but a few doubts remain.  Perhaps that’s as it should be.

Fans of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley would find much to like in The Hidden People.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Between the Tides by Patti Callahan Henry

Reviewed by Kristin

Catherine Leary has absolutely no desire to return to Seaboro, South Carolina.  She spent the first twelve years of her life there until a momentary lapse caused a sharp and sudden loss, wrenching her away from the gentle coast.  The family moved upstate to Cedar Valley, surrounded by the southern Appalachians, where Catherine has lived ever since.  But her father’s last wish was that Catherine scatter his ashes in that place where he was most at home.  How can she ignore that?

Forrest Anderson, Catherine’s father’s co-worker and friend, has begun writing a book about Southern University’s favorite professor:  Dr. Leary.  Forrest wants more detail about the family’s life, and insists on going with Catherine back to the small town on the edge of the Atlantic where everyone knows the Learys.  Forrest is an old boyfriend, creating a bit of tension as they hit the road together.

Catherine’s current boyfriend Thurman is the basketball coach at the university, but he seems a bit distant these days.  Thurman is off recruiting in Alabama as Catherine undertakes this journey to carry out her father’s request.  Forrest is just a friend, but a comforting one as so many of the other parts of Catherine’s life seem to be falling apart.  As Catherine looks to her past, what does it mean for her future?

In Seaboro, Catherine finds many memories she would rather remain buried.  Ellie, an old beloved neighbor, is now living in the past as dementia overtakes her mind.  Boyd, Ellie’s son, would rather Catherine stay away, far away.  Alice, a friend of the family, welcomes Catherine with open arms, and a few clues about the real reasons that Catherine’s family left Seaboro.

Patti Callahan Henry has created a story with a strong sense of place in Between the Tides.  I could practically smell the water as Catherine walked along the pier carrying the urn of her father’s ashes.  Catherine’s childhood memories were portrayed vividly, as she recalled them amidst the turmoil of returning to a place she hadn’t seen in almost two decades.  Switching from the present to the past and back again, the author weaves together the strands of Catherine’s story.

All families have secrets, whether large or small.  The Leary family is no different.  By making this trip to her childhood home, Catherine finds so much has changed, but in the end she is more at peace with herself and all that has gone before.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Nevermore: Girl in Disguise, Other Einstein, Makeup Man, Physics, Brain, Eva Luna and End of the Day

Reported by Kristin

Our first Nevermore reader very enthusiastically recommends Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister.  Based on the true story of the first female detective in the Pinkerton agency, Kate Warne forges a career in what until then has been an old boys club.  Once Pinkerton realizes that having women detectives would be to his advantage, Kate is placed in charge of training other women, a task she falls to with a vengeance.  Our reader found this novel fun, interesting and informative, and said that she just got enveloped in this woman’s life.

The next reader had a very different reaction to her novel—she thought that The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict was simply awful.  The book made her dislike Albert Einstein, as he was depicted as a selfish jerk who took credit for his first wife’s work.  Additionally, our reader did not think that the book was well written.  With mixed critical reviews, this volume depicts physicist Mileva Maric, the aforementioned first wife of Einstein, as a brilliant woman who sacrificed her own career for her husband’s.

Discussion turned to non-fiction with Makeup Man: From Rocky to Star Trek The Amazing Creations of Hollywood’s Michael Westmore by Michael Westmore with Jake Page.  The Westmore family has been involved in the Hollywood make up business for a full century, since 1917.  As well as working with such stars as Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Michael Westmore also designed the make up for hundreds of Star Trek aliens.  Our reader found this a fascinating book.

Going from art to science, our next reader talked about Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski.  Just detailed enough to be challenging, but simple enough to understand, Czerski seems to know everything about mid-level science.  Our reader was fascinated by the variety of scientific facts offered up, and in fact performed an experiment at the book club table.  How can you tell if an egg is hard boiled or raw?  Spin them and observe which one goes fastest and longest.  After several people tried testing the eggs, our reader cracked the two “boiled” eggs.  Fortunately, our spinners were correct.  Many other scientific curiosities are included in this illuminating book.

From physical science to life science, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge discusses the way that our experiences shape the physical properties of our brains.  Throwing out the old idea that brains are static organs, the author examines the idea of “neuroplasticity,” looking at how brains can rewire themselves after trauma.  Our reader was very impressed with the idea that our brains can use cognitive reserves to adapt to new circumstances.

The End of the Day is a new novel by Claire North.  Charlie decides he’s ready for a change in his life, so he applies for a new job.  The title?  Harbinger of Death.  Charlie visits people all over the world.  Sometimes he comforts them as they are dying.  Sometimes, he may visit quite some time before the time or day of actual death, but his visit serves some purpose to prepare them for what lies ahead.  Our reader commented on the fact that in Charlie’s world, everyone dies twice: one actual death, and a second when people stop talking about you.

Lastly, another reader discussed Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende.  Eva is a young girl who was orphaned early and is making her own way in a rough South American country.  As Eva moves through life, she experiences a series of unusual circumstances.  Our reader called it a tale of mystical realism, as the reader may question if the events really could have happened.  Our reader said that it was a good book and worth suspending disbelief over the fantastical elements in order to appreciate the story.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Reviewed by Jeanne

Ove is surrounded by idiots and incompetents. He tries to buy a computer called an iPad but the idiot salesclerk keeps saying that it’s not a computer, it’s a tablet.  People keep bringing cars into the neighborhood despite the signs clearly stating that no cars are allowed.  The world is falling apart.

Or so thinks Ove, who is a man of unbending principles. He is aghast when new people move in, driving a car with a trailer.  Or rather, attempting to drive, because the trailer is scraping against Ove’s house.  Obviously, this is another idiot with no idea of what he is doing.  The man is accompanied by a little foreign woman whose opinion of the man’s driving abilities—or lack thereof—mirrors Ove’s. 

This makes him dislike her a little less, the author tells us.

So begins A Man Called Ove.  Readers have been divided over this book:  some absolutely love it, some don’t see what all the fuss is about, and others feel about Ove the way Ove feels about everyone else.

I had intended to read the book some time ago, but just hadn’t gotten around to it.    I had my doubts, I admit.  Ove didn’t sound like a very endearing character and I was a tad concerned by the cat on the cover.  Sometimes that does not bode well for the cat.  Did I want to read a book about an irasciable Swede? Then my BPL Bingo card said “Read a translated book.”  That was just the little push I needed.

Count me among those who were charmed by the book.  Sure, Ove is a difficult character. It’s not just that he seems to be from a different era: Ove never fit in.  He sees the world in black and white, right and wrong.  He can be very rigid in his thinking.  And yet, there is a core of decency about him, even when he’s raging at the electronics salesman, which makes you think he’s not irredeemable.  He can be kind, even as he complains. I could also see some of the older generation in his situation, people who have always been self-sufficient but now who have to struggle against impersonal treatment and pushing buttons on phone to communicate what should have been a five minute conversation with a human being.

My suspicion when I started was that Ove would suddenly turn into a totally different character by the book’s end, jovial and expansive.  I’m glad to say that didn’t happen.  Maybe he did change, or maybe just my perceptions about him changed; whichever, it was believable.

I liked the way the author gradually revealed parts of Ove’s life. It helped me to understand the forces that shaped him, even as he remained true to his core personality.  There were so many interesting characters too, but I hate to try to describe them because I don’t want to give anything away.  Ove is best discovered by each reader.

So, yes, I am glad I read the book. My fears were laid to rest.

Also I checked the end of the book to make sure the cat survived.

Note:  The library also carries the movie.  It’s in Swedish with English subtitles.  There were changes made, but overall, I found it quite enjoyable. That fulfilled another Bingo square:  watch a movie based on a book.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Here and Gone by Haylen Beck

Reviewed by Brenda G.

          A fast-moving and powerful novel about the abuse of power and child sex-trafficking, though thankfully without the gruesome details. Escaping a bad marriage, Audra Kinney is driving west with her children when she is stopped by the local sheriff. He claims to find marijuana in her trunk, which he searches without permission. (No marijuana was there.) He calls another officer, female, to take charge of the children and takes Audra to jail. When she asks about her children, the sheriff remarks that she was alone and he saw no children. Her nightmare experience grows.  She is accused of killing her children and leaving them in the desert.

Audra’s troubles are receiving wide media coverage.  Her wealthy estranged husband appears. He besmirches her name and offers a reward. Another man is watching, a Chinese-American man named Danny Lee whose wife had a similar experience five years earlier. His daughter, who his wife said was taken by police, was never seen again, and his wife killed herself shortly afterward.  Danny is in search of those who took his daughter and is seeking revenge. Reporters, law officers, Audra, her ex-husband, and Danny all converge on a tiny town in Arizona.

It would be lovely to exist in a world in which events such as those depicted in this book did not happen. A world in which a Dark Web used by sex traffickers and other criminals did not exist. A world in which child pornography was not even an ugly rumor. We do not live in that world. In our world, everything depicted in this book is plausible. The author Haylen Beck, a pseudonym for Stuart Neville, presents a dark and frightening tale and tells it well. It may also make us wonder the next time we see and hear a similar tale in the media.  What really happened, we may ask. I hope we do ask.

Beck, Haylen. Here and Gone : a novel. New York : Crown, 2017. 287 pages