Friday, June 29, 2018

A Dance for Emilia by Peter S. Beagle

Reviewed by Jeanne

Sam and Jake have been friends since high school: closer than friends, more like brothers.   Both are drawn to the arts, Jake as an actor, Sam as a writer when his performing career doesn’t work out. Even though they live on opposite coasts, they talk once a week, visit when they can.  They’ve seen each other through marriage, divorce, failed relationships, bad jobs, dark nights of the soul, good times and bad.  Sam has been the one constant in Jake’s life.
And now Sam is dead. 

Jake can’t believe it. It doesn’t seem possible.

He meets Emily, the young woman Sam had fallen in love with—Sam the cynic!—and finds she shares his deep grief.  They bond over their memories of Sam, each filling in the gaps for the other. Then it’s back to their lives and the new normal of a world without Sam.

Until one night, when Jake gets a frantic call from Emily. . . .

Beautifully written, this novella explores loss, love, and the possibility of what comes after.  It’s no surprise to find that Beagle wrote the book after the loss of a close friend.  It’s not one of those three hanky books in which a writer uses all the tricks to make the audience weep over a fictional character.  It’s moving, tender, thought-provoking, and at the end. . . well, I’ll leave the ending for the reader to decide.

I do think it’s a little gem of a book and I’m glad I read it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Nevermore: Empress of the East, Ice Cream Queen, Clinton & Patterson, Love & Tartan, and First Ladies

Reported by Jeanne

The Empress of the East:  How a European Slave Girl Became the Queen of the Ottoman Empire by Leslie Peirce intrigued another Nevermore member.  It’s the true story of Roxelena, a Christian slave girl who was kidnapped and added to the harem of Suleyman the Magnificent.  She soon became his favorite and eventually his wife, an unprecedented move.  Our reader was fascinated to learn about the Ottoman Empire and thought most people would enjoy the book. She recommended it highly.

A fictional queen was next, with The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman.  Malka, a little Jewish girl from Russia, arrives in the United States in 1913.  Taken in by a family who peddles Italian ices, she learns about the trade and later sets up her own company.  It’s a rags to riches story, but Malka—renamed Lillian—is no Cinderella.  As the book opens, it’s the 1980s and she is on trial for various charges, but the book moves back and forth in time as Lilian tells her story.  The book has been praised for its vivid depiction of life in early twentieth century New York, and our reviewer said she also learned a lot about ice cream.

The President Is Missing by James Patterson and Bill Clinton continued the theme of leaders.  The heavily hyped book’s plot has a U.S. President suspected of colluding with or protecting a Middle Eastern terrorist, something he refuses to confirm or deny. According to our reviewer, this book is about a president so amazing that he could probably leap tall buildings with a single bound.  She was not impressed.

A better reception was accorded A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith, the latest entry in the 44 Scotland Street series.  The books are set in Edinburgh and follow the lives of the various inhabitants of the street.  The books are warm, amusing, and a go-to read for anyone who wants to relax.  Our reader said she loves all of McCall-Smith’s books.

The First Ladies of the Republic by Jeanne E. Abrams drew praise from a Nevermore member.  The book covers Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, and examines how these women became role models for all the first ladies who came after.  While Abigail emerged as our reviewer’s favorite, she said that Martha came across as warm and gracious; there was too much repetition about Dolley. All the women had children who “didn’t turn out too well,” and caused their mothers grief. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Reviewed by Christy
            Camille Preaker is a lower tier Chicago reporter trying to prove to her kindly editor-in-chief that she does indeed have what it takes. It’s why she reluctantly accepts an assignment to travel to her small hometown in Missouri and cover the murders of two pre-teen girls.  Though her family was wealthy, and she was popular in high school, Camille has no desire to visit the place she left behind long ago. She doesn’t want to face her cold, distant mother. And she’s not confidant how well she’ll handle being in her childhood home – where her younger, beloved sister Marian died many years ago from a mysterious illness.
            But Camille charges ahead ready to interview grieving parents, detectives, and neighbors. While she’s getting reacquainted with her hometown, she tries to reconnect with her mother Adora with little success. Though she is begrudgingly set up in her childhood bedroom in Adora’s Victorian mansion, there is little warmth to her welcome. She barely knows her thirteen year old half-sister Amma but soon learns there are two sides to her: the proper, doll-like side that she shows to Adora, and the wild, mean girl side that terrorizes the town.
            To cope with her uneasiness, Camille drinks too much and itches to self-harm. She has inappropriate relationships with men in the town, and lets her sister steamroll her. In short, she’s a mess. I do think she is one of Flynn’s more sympathetic protagonists however. Flynn is really great at writing deeply flawed characters who can lean into “bad person” territory or outright be the queen of it. Camille isn’t necessarily bad, just kind of a disaster, which was fine by me even though I wanted to yell at her sometimes.
            The mystery at the center of the novel is an interesting and creepy one. There are a couple of twists in the narrative – one I guessed, one I didn’t. While it’s not my favorite of Flynn’s novels, and it does take a little while to pick up steam, I liked it quite a bit. With HBO’s miniseries coming out this summer, I had to decide if I wanted to watch it blind or read the book first. I chose the book because so far I always enjoy Flynn’s writing, and I didn’t want to know anything going in. If you enjoyed Dark Places or Gone Girl, Sharp Objects is definitely worth checking out.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Weight of This World by David Joy

Reviewed by Kristin

What do you do when you have no place to go, nothing to change your circumstances, when the weight of the world is pressing down upon you?  Aiden McCall and Thad Broom are friends in their early 20s, living in Little Canada, wedged into the hardscrabble hills of western North Carolina.  Thad tried to escape, enlisting in the military and returning from Afghanistan with even more invisible scars than he had before.  Aiden never ventured far beyond their tiny mountain community, but oh, how he would love to stretch his horizons just as far as Asheville.

When Aiden and Thad witness the accidental shooting of their drug dealer (while not so coincidentally high on crystal meth) they panic, grabbing all the cash and drugs they can carry.  Aiden thinks that wad of bills may be their ticket to a better life, but Thad can only see the immediate gratification of what he can snort, smoke, or spend.

This was not an easy book to read.

I wanted to read it because I had heard David Joy compared to Ron Rash and Wiley Cash, fellow Appalachian authors.  After about fifty pages, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep reading.  The darkness and desperation of these characters came pouring off the pages.  I didn’t identify with the drug culture; the bad decisions were difficult to behold.  However, I am glad that I continued.  The writing is raw and gritty, but depicts real people with hopes and dreams of a better life.

Joy’s prose is eloquent as he shows his readers the depths of despair endured by his characters.  It’s not pretty, but it is beautiful.  Aiden tries to hold onto hope while Thad continues spiraling downward.  A story of abuse, friendship, family, and revenge, The Weight of This World continued to keep me breathless.  Hoping that one or both of them would escape the forces holding them down, I kept reading to learn the fates of Aiden and Thad.  The twists and turns rivaled those of a mountain road, as the friends struggled to find their paths.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Nevermore: Eskens, Alda, Vonnegut, Bradley, McDermott, Kasich

 Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore kicked off their meeting with The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens, a suspenseful mystery novel of murder.  Detective Max Rupert and attorney Boady Sanden are good friends, but when a case involving the murder of Jennavieve Pruitt is brought to their attention, Max and Boady are suddenly put on opposite sides of the case.  Max believes Jennavieve’s husband, Ben, committed the murder; Boady, who is representing Ben in court, believes he is innocent.   Together, they’ll clash over the facts of the case—and uncover the unsettling truth of Jennavieve’s murder.  As a fan of thrillers and mysteries, our reader picked up Eskens' novel with high hopes for a read full of intrigue and suspense.  The Heavens May Fall had an interesting conclusion and likable characters, but she thought it was “just okay.”  She noted that it wasn’t badly written and it had a rather interesting story; however, she decided it was rather formulaic—nothing too thrilling or too ground-breaking about it.

Next, Nevermore looked at Alan Alda’s memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.  Known for his starring roles on Broadway, The Aviator, and M*A*S*H, Alan Alda’s life was as turbulent and intriguing as any role he played on the stage and screen.  He begins his book with a single, memorable line:  “My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six”—and the rollercoaster adventures of his youth and young career merely continue from there.  Our reader said she immensely enjoyed reading Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.  Alda’s memoir was thoughtful and poignant yet humorous, offering both laughter and deeply emotional reflection on mental illness and familial relationships stretched to the limit.  Our reader highly recommended it to her fellow Nevermore members, saying it was worth reading for the title alone.

Remaining in the vein of humor, Nevermore checked out God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a series of short stories—originally ninety-second radio interludes for WNYC, New York City’s public radio station—by Kurt Vonnegut.  In his collection, Vonnegut visits Dr. Kevorkian as a reporter for public radio and, with the good doctor’s assistance, visits the Afterlife to interview notable personages, such as William Shakespeare, John Brown, and Eugene Victor Debs.  Our reader enjoyed Vonnegut’s short story collection, calling it a humorous visit with one of his favorite authors.  He said it was a quick, easy read, all done within an afternoon, with Vonnegut displaying his usual wit and charm.

The next book was Jefferson’s Sons:  A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  After a visit from the author to the library, our reader picked up one of Bradley’s more recent novels and dived into the world of Sally Heming’s children.  According to the book jacket, “[Jefferson’s Sons] tells a darker piece of America’s history from an often unseen perspective—that of three of Jefferson’s slaves—including two of his own children.  As each child grows up and tells his story, the contradiction between slavery and freedom becomes starker…”  Our reader thought Bradley created a wonderfully descriptive and interesting book.  Although Jefferson’s Sons is geared toward a younger audience,  she noted that it was still enjoyable to read as an adult and it weaves a story through history—an unknown, undocumented portion of history—that makes sense.

Next, Nevermore revisited The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott.  A perennial favorite in previous meetings, Nevermore returned to the interweaving stories of Sally, her widowed mother, the nuns who attempt to guide them, and the vibrant neighborhood in which they live.  Our reader said McDermott’s novel was exquisite.  Beautifully written and lovingly crafted, The Ninth Hour was an expressive and thoughtful look at the impact of a suicide—and the depths of love and forgiveness.  Although she noted it was a bit depressing, our reader thought it was a wonderful novel and she highly recommended it to her fellow Nevermore members.  “I have found my new favorite author,” she told them.

Last, Nevermore shared Two Paths:  America Divided or United by former presidential candidate John Kasich.  Part memoir and part analysis of the 2016 presidential election, Kasich’s book is a reflection on his personal life and the country as a whole.  Our reader said Kasich’s examination of his personal life was an “interesting, but rather dull” part of the book; however, he noted Kasich’s analysis of the previous presidential election was much more promising and enlightening.  “I would recommended it if you’re interested in Kasich, it’ll give you much more information on [the man],” he commented, wrapping up our meeting for the week.