Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Nevermore: Origin Story, Santa Fe, Good Masters/Sweet Ladies, Jefferson's Daughters, Doctored

Reported by Ambrea 

This week, Nevermore took a look at Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything by David Christian, which takes a look at the origins of everything.  According to the subtitle, Origin Story is a history of everything “from the big bang to the first stars, our solar system, life on earth, dinosaurs, Homo sapiens, agriculture, an ice age, empires, fossil fuels, a moon landing, and mass globalization.”  Our reader found Christian’s book to be incredibly fascinating and delightfully done.  Fashioned into a single, accessible volume, Origin Stories was extraordinarily enjoyable and easy to understand and “very complete,” he noted.  He highly recommended it to his fellow Nevermore members, saying it has a little bit of everything for everyone.

Next, Nevermore explored Voyage to Santa Fe by Janice Holt Giles.  Judith and Johnny are young, married, and venturing far from their home in the Arkansas Territory to the distant mountains of Santa Fe.  Facing peril at each turn, Judith and Johnny must stand together if they ever hope to reach their destination.  Our reader picked up Voyage to Santa Fe on a whim and she thoroughly enjoyed it.  Giles’ novel was delightfully descriptive and captivating, containing all the characteristics of a classic Western thriller.  She highly recommended it to the other members of Nevermore, especially if they were looking for a good book to read for an evening or a hit of nostalgia.

Nevermore also stepped further back in time with Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!:  Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Robert Byrd.  Winner of the Newbery Medal, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! recounts the lives of 22 different characters as they make their way about a small English village in the year 1255.  Our reader said he enjoyed Schlitz and Byrd’s book so much, admitting he read it twice to really catch the flavor of the stories.  He read aloud portions of his favorite vignettes to Nevermore, showing off the lovely pictures by Byrd and the clever poems created by Schlitz.  He praised Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! very highly, and it was quickly scooped up by another reader.

Nevermore continued to explore history with Jefferson’s Daughters:  Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison.  Thomas Jefferson had three daughters:  Martha and Maria with his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Harriet by slave Sally Hemings.  In this book, Kerrison explores the lives of Martha, Maria, and Harriet, as they set off for different and disparate futures.  Although our reader was initially interested in reading Kerrison’s biography, she finished reading Jefferson’s Daughters with mixed feelings.  “[It had] more than I wanted to know about French society,” she said, and so much of it “seemed so superfluous.  It was too much for me.”  She agreed it would probably be interesting for someone else, but it definitely won’t be one of her favorites.

Last, Nevermore wrapped up with Doctored:  The Disillusionment of an American Physician by Sandeep Jauhar.  In Doctored, Dr. Jauhar examines the current state of the American healthcare system and examines the complicated and perverse systems of referrals, charges, and malpractice suits that he has experienced.  Our reader said Jauhar’s book was incredibly enlightening.  “It was depressing,” she admitted, “but interesting too.”  Overall, she praised it as a very good book—right up there with Jauhar’s first memoir, Intern—and noted she will be looking forward to getting her hands on his latest book, Heart:  A History.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Outsider by Stephen King

Reviewed by Kristin

Stephen King is a master of intricately crafted horror novels.  He is known for being an author who makes you shiver in your seat and peer into the shadows, just in case.  Now please understand, I don’t really like to be scared by my mysteries.  I hadn’t read a King novel in years, maybe not since I was a teenager.  But for some reason I checked out The Outsider audiobook, popped it into my CD player, and rediscovered the enjoyment of a spine-tingling tale.

When a horrifying crime rocks Flint City, Oklahoma, fingers are quickly pointed at Terry Maitland, a popular Little League coach and high school teacher.  Eleven year old Frank Peterson has been brutally violated and murdered, and several witnesses identify “Coach T” as the blood-covered man who came out of the grove of trees where the boy’s mutilated body was later found.  Detective Ralph Anderson quickly and publicly arrests Terry, starting a series of events which divides the town.  With witnesses, fingerprints, and DNA evidence, the case seems to be locked up tight.  But what about the witnesses who also swear that Terry was with them in a neighboring town at an English teacher’s conference—at the exact time of the murder?

Before long, more crimes are committed.  Could this be a serial killer?  A copycat?  How is the murder of Frank Peterson in Flint City connected to crimes in Texas, Ohio, or even further afield?

The driving force of The Outsider is the strong characterization.  King has published more than fifty books, weaving the threads of crime and horror together to create complex stories that dig deep into the human psyche.  His characters draw us into a world where horrible things happen, but a strong protagonist is also there to pursue justice.  One of the characters who really grabbed me in this King novel was Holly Gibney.  Holly is a private investigator who meticulously explores the whereabouts of suspects at any given time, and is willing to accept possibilities outside the range of “normal.”

King also keeps you guessing to the end:  Is the perpetrator a bad human, or something supernatural?  I kept thinking back to his early novel Christine, where the giant hulking car seemed to have a mind of its own.  (I remember nothing else about Christine, but some things just stick with you.)

Verdict:  Not my usual reading fare, but a very interesting foray into a spooky but real world where terrible things happen, but the good guys come out on top in the end.

Friday, October 26, 2018

A Season with the Witch: the Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts by J.W. Ocker

Reviewed by Christy

            J.W. Ocker likes to travel quite a bit. But his destinations are almost always weird – so much so that he regularly documents his adventures in the travelogue blog Odd Things I’ve Seen. He’s written several books on his travels including Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe.  To write  A Season with the Witch, he moves his wife and daughters into Salem, MA for the entire month of October to observe and participate in their Haunted Happenings. Anyone with a love of history and all things weird and creepy would probably get a kick out of Salem during the month of Halloween. Just be sure to book many, many months in advance.

            Ocker begins with a brief overview of the Salem Witch Trials and America’s fascination with them. He describes historical sites pertinent to the trials including grave sites, judges’ homes, and where the gallows supposedly stood. (Behind a Walgreens now, in case you’re interested.) He then goes on to discuss the various kitschy museums around town and even throws in some pirate and maritime history for good measure. He interviews street performers, street preachers, shop and restaurant owners, actual witches who live and practice in Salem, and regular every day Salemites. He eats carnival food and drinks Candy Corntinis. (Any autumn or Halloween themed cocktail he sees, he tries.) He visits the filming locations for movies like Hocus Pocus, The Lords of Salem and a string of Salem-related episodes of Bewitched. He also talks in depth about the often-maligned statue of Elizabeth Montgomery. On the big night he and his wife take their daughters trick or treating down a street where the residents sit on their porches to hand out candy. (And in one case, pumpkin pie jello shots for the adults!) One cheery resident wrote down where each trick or treater was from (she was already up to six different states), and another proclaimed he had given out 900 pieces of candy the previous year. And that’s not even getting into the wild party that is Essex Pedestrian Mall on Halloween Night.

            This book was so much fun to read. Ocker’s writing is warm, conversational, and often times laugh out loud funny. As a self-described “spooky person”, he was clearly having a blast living in and writing about Salem, and it’s contagious.  Although I would love to visit Salem myself one day I already feel like I’ve at least passed through.

            The only negative thing I can say about A Season with the Witch is that it is full of simple grammatical and spelling mistakes. He gets names wrong (including Jack Skellington and Rob Zombie’s wife), and it seems as if a more thorough proof reading was skipped. I’m not sure why that would be unless they were rushing to get it out in time for Halloween. Regardless, while irritating, it wasn’t enough to damper my enjoyment. I think anyone who is interested in history, pop culture, travel, or Halloween will enjoy this book immensely.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Nevermore: Mother of Rain, Mary's Monster, George Orwell, Manhattan Beach, Perfect Mother

Reported by Jeanne

Nevermore’s first book was Mother of Rain by Karen Spears Zacharias. As the book opens, a family tragedy has sent ten year old Maizee  to live with an aunt and her husband in Christian Bend, Tennessee.  The story follows Maizee as she struggles with the voices she hears in her head.  She marries, and gives birth to a boy she names Rain. Her life gets more complicated when her husband is drafted into the Army to fight overseas in World War II.  Our reader saw part of the book’s theme as being about the impact a mother’s life and death can have on a child.  The book is written in Appalachian dialect but was easy to understand.  One member wondered if there really is a Christian Bend, and the answer is yes:  it’s a small unincorporated community in Hawkins County.

The mother/child influence theme was also a component of the next book, Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge. It is a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly told in free verse with illustrations.  Every member who has read it has praised the book for its power and beauty.  There are copies in both adult and YA, and Nevermore proves that Mary’s Monster has definite crossover appeal because it has been making the rounds of the entire Nevermore Book Club, and earning rave reviews from all who have read it. It was quickly taken up by another reader this time as well. It's also timely:  2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein.

Before he became famous for such novels as Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell wrote a memoir entitled Down and Out in Paris and London. In it, he details the travails of living poor in a large city.  In Paris, he worked as at a hotel, gave English lessons, and worked as a dishwasher.  He also pawned his clothes.  Finally exhausted with working 17 hour days without a break, he seeks employment back in London.  He obtains a position teaching and caring for a child with challenges, but he arrives back in London to find the family gone abroad and he is left to scrounge a living as well as find a place to sleep.  Our reviewer thought it was extremely interesting, and painted a vivid picture of the underclass in both cities during the 20s and 30s.  While parts of his account were challenged, Orwell said that while he may not have included events chronologically, all that he recorded actually happened at one time or another.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is another historical novel which moves forward and backward in time, and Nevermore members have read a lot of those lately.  Part of the story is set during the Great Depression, when eleven year old Anna meets Dexter, her father’s employer, at Manhattan Beach.  Anna senses that Dexter is something more than what she’s been told but is uncertain what it means. Years later, during WW II, Anna fights to become a diver repairing warships and seeking to find out what became of her father who has gone missing and whom Anna thinks is dead.  Our reviewer said it was a good book and well-written, but the current fashion for having books move back and forth in time is getting a bit old.

The same comment was made about the next book, The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy. The May Mothers are a social group of women who all had babies in May.  They meet in the park each week for a bit of socializing with their babies, but one week they decide to have a “Mom’s Night” and get together at a bar without babies in tow.  What should have been a fun occasion takes a terrifying turn when one of the mothers has her three month old child kidnapped. The investigation reveals that every mother has secrets.  Our reader said it was pretty good, but the technique of going back in time to reveal each character’s history is becoming boring.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Magic Cottage by James Herbert

Reviewed by Jeanne

This book was recommended to me by a patron who commented, “They say he’s a horror writer, but I don’t think this is horror.”  Intrigued, I decided to give The Magic Cottage a try. 

Musician Mike Stringer and his significant other, artist Midge Gudgeon, have toyed with the idea of a rural cottage from some time.  While their careers keep them both busy, they feel perhaps a change of scene would be good for the creative spirit—and keep Mike away from some unhealthy influences. Midge spots an advertisement for just such a cottage and they make inquiries, even visiting the place. Midge is instantly smitten, though Mike has some reservations: the ad said some repairs would be necessary and to his eyes, the repairs are more extensive than he had in mind. It doesn’t matter though, as the price quoted is beyond their means.

Except then it suddenly isn’t. Both Mike and Midge receive generous job offers that would more than cover what they need.  And at second look, even the repairs don’t seem as daunting.

Of course, as this all happens in the first couple of chapters and there is a lot of book to go, that’s not all that happens in the cottage known as Gramarye.

I agree with the patron who said she didn’t think it was horror, but then everyone’s definition of horror differs.  There are supernatural elements and a battle between good and evil, but I found it nicely unsettling and a bit creepy (in a good way) rather than horror.  For one thing, I enjoyed Herbert’s descriptions of the village, the forest, and the cottage itself.  Mike, our narrator, is a likeable guy, and he comes across as honest and dependable.  He adores Midge, who is also a genuinely nice person.  I was especially fond of the squirrel, Rumbo, who sort of adopts them, but then I tend to be fond of animal characters.  The supernatural elements were handled well and kept the pages turning.

If you like a bit of shiver in your reading  this time of year, The Magic Cottage might just provide it.