Friday, September 28, 2018

House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

Reviewed by Jeanne

The year is 1948. Lewis Barnavelt, a shy, chubby, bookish boy, has just lost both his parents in an automobile accident.  Now he is on a bus to New Zebedee, Michigan to live with an uncle he’s never met.  His concerns aren’t exactly alleviated when Uncle Jonathan meets the bus wearing what appears to be some sort of robe, though his uncle assures him it’s nothing of the sort.  It’s a kimono.

His uncle’s house is just as eccentric.  It’s huge, rambling old mansion filled with clocks, books, and all manner of odd items—some of which seem to change unexpectedly.  Uncle Jonathan and his cookie baking friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, introduce Lewis to the fine art of poker playing, allow him to stay up all night if he wishes, and gives him free rein of the house.  Lewis is aware, however, that his uncle is keeping secrets from him, and wonders that Uncle Jonathan goes poking about the house at night, tapping walls and muttering to himself.  When his uncle realizes Lewis is on to him, he reveals that the house formerly belonged to a dark warlock and his wife, and that the warlock hid a clock inside the walls of the house and it seems to be counting down to. . . something. Something very bad.

And by the way, Uncle Jonathan is also a warlock and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch.

This is the first in a wonderful children’s series by John Bellairs, one which I am ashamed to admit I only read recently.  In my defense, I did read and enjoy others by him in various series; I just never went back to where it all started.  At the time, I had some kids who would ask for scary books that weren’t, um, cheats.  You know the ones:  like Scooby-Doo, where the kids chase ghosts and demons and such, but they always turn out to be some guy (or woman) wearing glow in the dark paint.  Those are fine, but sometimes a reader wants a nice little fright that isn’t a fraud.  Bellairs fit the bill. 

But the books aren’t dark and despairing.  They’re about almost ordinary people who fight evil and who use books and knowledge to do so.  Also there is usually a generational divide—a boy with a much older adult—but there is always a warm and supportive bond between the two.  Uncle Jonathan wants to protect his nephew but he doesn’t condescend to him.

The settings were another winner for me.  They’re always set some 60 or more years ago, and decorated by radio detectives, decoder rings, old automobiles, and vintage treats. 

Topping it all off were the illustrations by the one and only Edward Gorey, which gives you a better idea than I can about the whole feel of the books: set in the past with ominous overtones, populated by  worried but kind people.

So I do recommend these to readers of all ages.  I know I’m going to go back and read the earlier ones I missed.

Note: This was prompted by the release of the film.  Some things were done very well, some less well, and some were downright puzzling.  (Why is it set in 1955, for example, instead of 1948?) I did enjoy the movie, and understood why some choices were made.  And in case you saw the movie and were wondering, much of the banter between Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman comes straight from the book.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Nevermore: Shipping, Lighthouses, Light, and Macbeth

 Reported by Jeanne

Nevermore opened with a rave review of a book which has been making the rounds:  90% of Everything:  Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George.  While the title sounds dry, the book is anything but.  George sailed with a variety of people on all sorts of different vessels, looking at consumerism (all that junk we just don’t need, as our reviewer put it), modern day piracy, and shipping policies.  This is a book everyone should read before taking a cruise, our reader said, and will give you a new appreciation of the complexities of international commerce.

Another nonfiction book also had a bit of a nautical theme:  Out of Harm’s Way:  Moving America’s Lighthouse by Mike Booher and Lin Ezell. This is the amazing story of how the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved a half mile inland, an incredible feat of engineering.  Many felt the historic lighthouse—the county’s tallest—would never be moved successfully.  In fact, the movers were awarded the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award in 1999.  The authors present a history of the lighthouse as well as details about the move, which was accomplished by the International Chimney Corporation.  Our reviewer was entranced by the book, which also featured wonderful photos.

Beautiful Diana Cooke, born into fading Virginia gentry at the beginning of the 20th century, is well loved by her parents who want what is best for her—but also expect her to marry someone wealthy enough to keep up Saratoga, the family mansion.  That someone turns out to be Captain Copperton, a vulgar and sometimes brutal man whose ample finances seem to be his only virtue but who does give Diana her adored son, Ashton. Dying of the Light, the new generational saga by Robert Goolrick, is an absorbing foray into a world of glamorous people and family secrets, and our reader recommended it for fans of historical fiction set among the upper classes.

All the Little Lights by Jamie McGuire features two teenage outcasts:  Elliott Youngblood because he is Native American and Catherine Calhoun because her family is held responsible for a local disaster.  Both are artistic and intelligent as well as socially inept. But the course of love never runs smooth, and the two are driven apart at a crucial moment.  The reviewer said she found some of the characters were sort of strange and that there was a twist ending.  It wasn’t her favorite, but it was interesting.

Finally, Jo Nesbo, usually a favorite, had a rare miss with Macbeth, according to our next Nevermore member.  The book is a part of a series in which well-known authors reimagine Shakespeare’s works.  This version is indeed set in Scotland, where Duncan is chief of police, trying to combat drug lords. Our reader said it was slow going with small print and just didn’t have the appeal of some of Nesbo’s other works, such as The Snowman.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarer Series) by Becky Chambers

Reviewed by Kristin

Humankind left a dying Earth centuries ago on the Exodus Fleet, and now often live and die on alien worlds, as well as the space in between.  Having learned lessons from the greed which desecrated the Earth, the Fleet became a well-balanced community with living space and jobs for anyone who wishes to live and work in harmony with others.  Other species are out there in the Galactic Commons:  Aeluons, Harmigians, Aandrisks, and many more yet unknown.  These more space-experienced species helped the humans by sharing technology and knowledge.

This third entry in the Wayfarers series is all about journeys.  Some are geographical, and some are spiritual.  All demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit as people explore far beyond their home world.  Record of a Spaceborn Few is strongly character driven, and although the characters’ timelines occasionally bump into another, their stories are not necessarily dependent upon each other.

Archivist Isabel helps to maintain the records of the lives of those in the Fleet.  She is a keeper of stories, one who builds a history of those who have gone before.  She has dedicated her life to service in celebrating births, marriages, and deaths.  When she is tasked with hosting Ghuh’loloan Mok Chutp, an alien with an amorphous body, Isabel has to step outside her comfort zone during this cultural exchange.

Eyas is a Caretaker.  In space, all matter must be recycled and reused, and that includes human remains.  Caretakers are revered as they respectfully turn remains into fertile mulch which will continue the circle of life.  But who cares for the caretakers?  If it’s hard for Eyas find the kind of friend willing to drop by a neighborhood bar for a glass of mek, how can she find a partner ready to fill her more, ahem, primal needs?

Sawyer was born on the planet Mushtullo.  With no family ties to his home world, this young man decides to try something new—maybe there is a place for him in the Fleet.  Hired on by a crew of shipwreck scavengers, he might finally find a home, or perhaps more danger than he can handle.

Kip is a sixteen-year-old doing what teenagers do—pushing their limits and trying to find their way in life.  He’s not exactly excited about his internship in salvage, and classes are b-o-r-i-n-g.  When a friend suggests modifying their records (the equivalent of getting a fake ID) and going to a club filled with more adult pleasures, the temptation is more than Kip can resist.

Tessa is the character connecting Record of a Spaceborn Few to the earlier books in the series.  She is sister to Ashby, the Wayfarer captain who is still roaming the stars.  Working in salvage and caring for her family keeps Tessa busy within the Fleet.  Her husband George works far afield, leaving Tessa at home with precocious daughter Aya, toddler son Ky, and an extremely stubborn aging father.

There are just a few of the characters wandering the universe of Becky Chambers’ imagination.  In the Wayfarer series, she has created a universe of new possibilities as humanity continues to expand their presence across the stars.

The review of the first book in the series, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, can be read here.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Bengal Identity by Eileen Watkins

Reviewed by Jeanne

Cassie McGlone, whom we first met in The Persian Always Meows Twice, has a thriving cat grooming/boarding business, thanks in part to all the publicity after her involvement in solving a murder. Still, she’s a bit surprised when a young man from out of the area turns up with a cat he needs to board because of a house fire.

Things get even more puzzling when she tries to clean the cat up to remove a residue: it appears the cat has been deliberately dyed to conceal its identity.  It appears to be a Bengal, a relatively rare and valuable breed, and given the circumstances, Cassie has to wonder if it’s been stolen.   She isn’t going get answers from the man who dropped off the cat, however: he’s the victim of an apparent hit and run.

It soon becomes clear that someone wants the cat – and wants it badly enough to kill for it.

Don’t let the cover with the wide eyed cat fool you: this is not just a sweet little curl up with a cup of tea and some freshly baked scones sort of book. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind, as I do read more than my share of those!) Sure, there’s a bit of rocky romance as Cassie and handsome veterinarian Mark test the dating waters, and there’s some small town ambiance, but the book is more in the mode of a traditional mystery, with dangerous and desperate people. There’s a touch of grit under that veneer.  

The plot is fresh and quite well done; there’s no obvious line up of suspects, but there are clues. Also, the police are competent; Cassie is able to help because of her specialized knowledge of cats, not because she’s a secret super-sleuth. She isn’t trying to investigate the hit and run, other than to offer what she remembers about the young man and what she discovers while she’s searching for the cat’s origin. I know that some consider the “heroine/hero must help because cops have targeted the wrong suspect” to be almost a feature of the amateur sleuth cozy, but when it’s too heavy handed I find it annoying.  There is the exciting showdown at the end feature, of course.

Watkins also has the knack of taking a subject that is topical but not making it read like a “torn from the headlines” sort of thing.  I admire the way she uses her books to raise awareness of problems in modern pet culture; the topics are things that are somewhat well known among pet rescues and breeders, but possibly not on the radar of the general public.  The fact that Watkins can do this in an entertaining way is a bonus. (I apologize for being vague, but I don’t want to take the chance of giving away anything that would compromise another’s enjoyment.)

You don’t need to have read the first one to enjoy this one, and you don't have to be a cat lover, but I will say that cat lovers will really enjoy the descriptions of the very active cat’s antics. Watkins knows her cats.

I have really enjoyed this series and am anxious for the next book, Feral Attraction, due out in September.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Potato Branch: Sketches of Mountain Memories by Joe Richard Morgan

Reviewed by Kristin

BPL Book Bingo takes us down paths where we might not usually travel, but we are often much enriched by taking those unforeseen directions.  Potato Branch:  Sketches of Mountain Memories by Joe Richard Morgan is one of those meandering trips down memory lane that I wouldn’t have picked up and enjoyed had I not been looking for a book set within 100 miles.  

 Having grown up in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, Morgan weaves many a fine tale of his boyhood and kindly shares them with us in this slim volume.
Pick this up and you will become acquainted with Morgan’s mother, father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, various neighbors, girlfriends, cows, mules, dogs, and many more unique characters.  Some memories are sad, but most will have you nodding your head and chuckling, even if you have never plowed a field, used a three seater outhouse, or gone to an old-timey revival church service.

One story that I particularly enjoyed concerned Morgan’s neighbor, Mrs. Pearl Robertson, and her 1938 black Plymouth.  The Robertsons had recently retired from city life and had never needed a car before moving to a rural area.  Mrs. Robertson got it into her head that they needed a car, and she, not Mr. Robertson, would be the one to drive it.  Morgan was volunteered to help her learn to drive, and was the passenger for many a jolting ride to town.  Mrs. Robertson had trouble coordinating her feet for easing off the clutch while pressing down on the accelerator, and eventually ended up in a tangle with a wire fence and a hayfield.

Young Morgan grew up and left the mountains for the Marines and later continued his education in Illinois and England.  He has made teaching and writing his career.  From beehives to Model T Fords to amorous bulls, Morgan knows how to spin a tale which will have you laughing out loud and turning the page for just one more chapter.