Friday, March 30, 2018

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Reviewed by Kristin

You can make one mistake in Alaska, but the second one will kill you.

That’s the advice the Allbright family receives from locals when they move to an Alaskan homestead on the Kenai Peninsula in 1974.  Thirteen-year-old Leni is hoping for a fresh start, and she is no stranger to fresh starts.  Leni’s father Ernt is a Vietnam veteran, one of the “lucky” ones who returned home after years of being held in a POW camp.  Now his temper is quick and violent, but Leni and her mother Cora hold onto hope that Ernt might one day find his way back to being the husband and father he was before the war.  Another job, another town, just another chance is all he needs.  Or so Leni and Cora think.

While the Allbright family is almost laughably unprepared for an Alaskan winter, their new neighbors pitch in to help them stock up over the few warm months of summer.  Neighbor Large Marge explains the community’s way of trading goods and services.  Leni and her parents quickly find out how much of a lifestyle change they have chosen, but they grow stronger and more wilderness-savvy as the weeks of sunlight pass.

As the wintry darkness falls, the world becomes smaller for Leni and her family.  What seemed like a new beginning becomes only a new setting for Ernt’s nightmares, anger, and obsessions.

I had never read anything by Kristin Hannah before The Great Alone.  The harsh Alaska landscape was an appealing setting, so I jumped right into this new release.  Quickly I began to care about Leni as she deals with the complicated love within her family.  Even Ernt with his volatile emotions simmering just under the surface, draws some kind of sympathy because his wartime experiences changed him.  Cora’s relationship with Ernt is intense, full of love and caring as well as jealousy and violence.  Leni loves both her parents, but desperately wants to protect her mother from harm.

This saga stretched out so long with so many dramatic moments that I really wondered what other twists and turns could happen.  At some points, I thought the situation could not possibly be resolved without someone dying.  This isn’t much of a spoiler, but people do die before the end of the book.  The question is:  will it be a death of someone by the hands of someone they love, a matter of self-defense, or simply the tragedy of making a mistake in the Alaskan wilderness?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Nevermore: White Tiger, Beale Street, BAD, Bellevue, Troost, and Appalachia

Reported by Jeanne

Our first reviewer was very enthusiastic about his book, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. The story is revealed through a series of letters written by Balram Halwai to a president of China before the latter’s visit to India.  Halwai wants to be certain that the president understands India and the changes it is undergoing.  Halwai was a lower caste, ambitious individual who describes the way he has managed to move up in society—including one particularly shocking incident.  The book is very descriptive, but dark.  The protagonist makes specific choices, some of which made it difficult for our reader to fully identify with him, but it was still a fascinating book which he recommends.

A second reader was equally anxious to discuss his book, Beale Street Dynasty:  Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis by Preston Lauterbach.  The book covers the story of the city from the Civil War until the 1940s.  One very influential man was Robert Church, the mixed race son of a steamboat owner, who came to Memphis in 1862.  Church amassed a fortune and owned large tracts of land in Memphis, many of which he acquired after Yellow Fever epidemics had decreased the city’s population considerably.  He helped establish a bank for African Americans as well as erecting a concert hall, a park, a playground, and other such areas that contributed to a vibrant culture during segregation.  Sadly, urban renewal has removed many of the landmarks that would have been familiar to generations of Memphis residents.

BAD or, the Dumbing of America by Paul Fussell was published in 1991 but our reviewer felt his comments were just as valid today—some even more so.  Fussell wrote about things that are touted as Good but are, in fact, Bad:  things such as fast food, television, popular music, etc.  His sharp observations are both witty and insightful.

Our next reader was quite taken with Weekends at Bellevue, a non-fiction book by psychiatrist Julie Holland. Holland worked in the ER at a psychiatric hospital and the book is filled with accounts of some of her memorable cases as well as a look at her personal life.   It’s a riveting account, and had other Nevermore members interested in reading the book for themselves.

J. Maarten Troost is a travel writer who has been called “the next Bill Bryson.” Our reader brought in a selection of Troost’s books, saying that she had thoroughly enjoyed them all.  He writes with humor and an eye for detail.  Her favorite was his first book, Sex Lives of Cannibals.

Finally, Written in Blood:  Courage and Corruption in the Appalachian War of Extraction is an anthology edited by Wess Harris which includes essays, folk songs, interviews, and other material from a variety of sources to examine the conflicts between mining companies and the people of Appalachia.  Our reader said it was a very, very, very important book for our region, describing some of the practices which created hardship and turmoil for the workers and their families. For example, if an employee was killed or became disabled, the family would be evicted unless another family member could assume a job with the company.   She highly recommended the book for everyone.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sisters on the Fly: Caravans, Campfires, and Tales from the Road by Irene Rawlings

Reviewed by Kristin

BPL Bingo makes strange bedfellows, or at least pushes some of us to read outside of our usual genres.  Try as I might, I couldn’t avoid a Bingo card with “Read a Book about Sports,” so I found a little book from the 796 section—Sisters on the Fly: Caravans, Campfires, and Tales from the Road by Irene Rawlings.

The Sisters are a nationwide group of women who like to travel, often in restored vintage trailers.  Some of the Sisters are into fly fishing, although some much prefer their fish breaded and fried, not slippery and wet.  Strictly speaking, the book includes much more about the socialization the women share, as well as the pride they take in restoring and decorating their trailers.

Sisters mentioned in the book are numbered, as the original group became Sister #1, Sister #2, Sister #3, and so forth, now numbering in the thousands with almost 5000 currently active members.  A variety of gatherings happen in all parts of the United States as the women enjoy camping, cooking, decorating, antiquing, and most of all—laughing—together.

The book even includes a chapter full of recipes, fishy and otherwise, enjoyed by the Sisters while on the road.  Cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens are heartily recommended, and some Sisters note that using cast iron serves a double purpose as a good arm workout.  

Presentation is important to many Sisters as well; beautiful table d├ęcor abounds as the women come together for meals.

“Cowgirl crafts” caught my eye with everything from simple applique dishtowels to loving quilts made for a Sister enduring a serious illness.  Scrapbooking keeps the memories alive as stories and songs are shared around campfires.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the creativity and caring shown within the pages of this book.  It’s much more than a fish story—for a great flavor of sisterhood, check out Sisters on the Fly.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams

Reviewed by Jeanne

Miracle Springs is a spa town, a tourist town.  Not only are there natural hot springs purported to have healing qualities, but the town also boasts fine dining and specialty shops.  It also features Miracle Books, a book shop owned by Nora Pennington who seems to have the knack of finding just the right books to help a reader get his or her life in order.  It’s a talent that pairs well with Hester Winthrop’s scones sold across the way at the Gingerbread House: after a talk with a customer, Hester creates a one of a kind scone suited to that person, one that will evoke specific feelings or memories. 

Nora is a solitary soul, having come to Miracle Springs hoping for her own healing from her past.  She has acquaintances but no close friends.  That changes after a visitor to the book shop dies unexpectedly by falling in the path of an oncoming train. The fall onto the tracks is ruled an accident, but Nora feels strongly that this was not a man contemplating suicide.  She’s not alone: Hester, June Dixon, and Estella Sadler agree and together they form The Secret, Book, and Scone Society to prove that Neil’s death was murder.  All four women have been living damaged lives, each with a secret in her past that has left her emotionally isolated, even flamboyant Estella.  To solve the crime, they will have to learn to trust one another—and themselves.

The reviews recommended this book for readers of Sarah Addison Allen and I can certainly see why.  There’s a whiff of magic in the air, especially in Hester’s concoctions. She says she can read scents and flavors around a person the way that psychics claim to read auras.   Nora’s bibliotherapy works much the same way, using a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, old and new, to address problems of the spirit, often in an oblique way.  The descriptions of both are designed to draw readers in: the sensory appeal of the various scones is described very well, and bibliophiles will revel in the book selections.

The female friendships formed during the course of the story are the strongest part of the book. The murder mystery is serviceable enough, but the true mysteries are in the backgrounds of the four women.  Their secrets are revealed only gradually, after the reader has gotten to know them which helps provide context, how they became the people they are today.  Most of the characters are not natives of the area and haven’t been too interesting in forming meaningful connections with anyone, much less locals, so there is no strong sense of place.  We’re told the setting is in the mountains of North Carolina and people mention going to Asheville, but the book could have been set anywhere.  That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

This is a first in series book, and I look forward to the next installment.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Nevermore: Name of the Rose, Grief Cottage, Shipping News, Giants in the Earth, Handmaid's Tale

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore kicked things off with a review of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a historical mystery set in the year 1327.  Brother William of Baskerville is sent to investigate reports of heresy among the Franciscans, but when a series of bizarre deaths occur, Brother William is drawn into a conflict that he never imagined.  Our reader said she really enjoyed reading The Name of the Rose, calling it a “fantastic murder mystery.”  However, she did note that it is full of pages and pages of medieval theology.  Our reader admitted she skipped many of these parts, but she said “if you’re interested in medieval theology and the Inquisition, you’ll learn a lot.”

Next, Nevermore checked out a new novel by Gail Godwin titled Grief Cottage.  Eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a small South Carolina island with his aunt after the death of his mother.  Reclusive and haunted by her past, Aunt Charlotte is a woman of few words—and many secrets.  When Marcus finds a ruined cottage, known to the locals as the “Grief Cottage,” he discovers the ghost of the boy who died there and a mystery that will change his life.  Our reader said she really enjoyed this latest novel by Gail Godwin.  Vivid and compelling, Grief Cottage is fascinating mystery riddled with suspense, and she’ll be looking for more from Godwin.

Nevermore also looked at The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, a novel set on the country coast of Newfoundland.  Quoyle is a third-rate newspaper hack who, after the death of his wife, retreats to his ancestral home on Newfoundland with his two daughters and his eccentric aunt.  But when he arrives at Quoyle’s Point, he discovers a world that’s vastly different from the one he knew—and that will shape him in new ways.  Our reader said she enjoyed Proulx’s novel immensely.  It’s introspective and thoughtful, and it investigates what it means to be human, what it means to survive.  “I can’t recommend it highly enough,” she said as she handed the book over to the next reader.

Nevermore shared Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag, which follows a Norwegian pioneer family’s struggles in the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in American.  Partially based on Rolvaag’s personal experiences as a settler and his wife’s family who were immigrant homesteaders, Giants in the Earth is a story of a different kind of survival that pits man against the elements, poverty, hunger, loneliness and homesickness.  “It’s incredible what they go through,” our reader said, as she described the trials and joys the family experienced.  “It’s [one of the] best books I’ve ever read.”

Last, Nevermore looked at The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic.  Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.  She stays in the home of the Commander, walking to the market for food once per day.  She may not walk alone; she may not read or write; she may not speak to anyone, or wear what she wants.  Instead, she must pray the Commander makes her pregnant, because Offred and the other Handmaids are only valuable if they can produce children.  Our reader said The Handmaid’s Tale was a fascinating story with so many layers, so much depth.  Although she found some of the content upsetting, she found that she loved reading Atwood’s novel, because it’s a story that makes you think.  It’s a story our reader took time to read.  “I didn’t want to rush it,” she told her fellow Nevermore members.  “I wanted to absorb all of it.”