Friday, May 22, 2015

Bodies, bodies everywhere

Forensic science developments in recent years have helped to solve many crimes that might not even have been recognized as murder in past times.  The events in The Anatomist's Apprentice take place in the year 1780, when the study of anatomy, not to mention forensics, was in its infancy.

At the country estate of Boughton Hall, a terrible scene takes place.  The young lord of the manner, Edward Crick, experiences a terrifying episode of convulsions and excruciating pain before dying in front of his horrified sister Lydia.  Lydia is married to the Irishman Michael Ferrell, who inherits the estate upon the death of his brother-in-law.  Since Edward was so young and there is a motive for someone to want him dead, tongues in the village begin to wag.  In an effort to silence the gossip, Michael calls in two local doctors to examine the corpse.  The doctors, not surprisingly, don't waste too much time on pondering the cause of death, and decide it was from natural causes.

Lydia's cousin, Francis Crick, is a medical student who is studying under the American Dr. Thomas Silkstone.  He mentions the pioneering work in anatomy and chemical analysis that Dr. Silkstone is doing, which causes Lydia to ask the doctor to examine the corpse of her brother.  She is very disturbed by the rumors which call her husband a murderer. Even though Michael Ferrell has turned into a disagreeable spouse, she feels very loyal to him and doesn't want the family name to be ruined.

Dr. Silkstone agrees to take on the case, both to find out if murder was done, and to please the beautiful Lydia.  Things begin to look even worse for Michael when it becomes known that he set up a still to brew up his own rat poison (doesn't everyone?).  Dr. Silkstone takes samples from the by now decomposing body of Lord Crick, but is unable to find any rat poison.  This doesn't stop the rumors, nor does it protect Ferrell from becoming a suspect.

No one on the estate, apart from Lydia, seems particularly upset at the young Lord's death.  In fact, more than one person had a motive for wanting him dead, but none as much as Ferrell.  Naturally, someone doesn't want Dr. Silkstone to get close to the truth, so he is brutally attacked.  Will he be able to discover the truth before there are more deaths?

Well, unfortunately not.  As the bodies pile up, the red herrings also fly thick and fast.  Just when you think the murder has been revealed, someone else dies and suspicion falls on a different person.  That happening once might be OK, but it happens several times and starts to get really annoying before the book finally ends and we apparently have tied up all the loose ends, and assigned blame for all the deaths to the correct people.

While I can appreciate that the author wanted the story to have twists and turns, there were just too many of them to make the story enjoyable.  I would have preferred a more straightforward resolution to the mystery.  This sleepy village suddenly being overrun with dead bodies and plotting murderers was just too far-fetched to be believable.

Final verdict for The Anatomist's Apprentice: Two Gherkins, for being a mystery with too many killers coming out of the woodwork

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I'd start the screamingest night club in London

I had high hopes for Murder in Piccadilly, a book that combines two of my favorite things:  a mystery and a London setting.  This book was originally published in 1936, and has been re-issued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series.  Unfortunately, to my mind, the book doesn't hold up very well for the modern reader.

The story is a somewhat familiar one.  Bobbie Cheldon is a young man who lives with is widowed mother in somewhat shabby circumstances in Fulham.  The one bright spot in their drab existence is Bobbie's prospects:  he is the heir to the estate at Broadbridge Manor.  When he takes over the estate, he'll have an income of £10,000 per year (as we are informed over and over again).  This was apparently quite the fortune in 1936!  Unfortunately, Uncle Massy Cheldon, who at 50ish seems quite ancient to young Bobbie, shows no inclination of helping things along with a natural death any time soon.

Bobbie has fallen madly in love with a lower-class but lovely dancer at the Frozen Fang nightclub named Nancy Curzon.  Nancy is willing to marry him, but not if it involves living in poverty.  She has been told that an American tour showcasing the dancing talents of her and her partner Billy Bright is in the works, but she and Billy would have to be married first (somewhat antiquated morality!).  Bobbie is naturally becoming desperate at the thought of losing Nancy.  A somewhat shady acquaintance of Nancy's, ex-boxer Nosey Ruslin, hears of poor Bobbie's predicament.  Nosey insinuates himself into Bobbie's life, seemingly befriending the younger man and offering to help him out financially from time to time as necessary.  The dim and naive Bobbie takes Nosey at his word (naturally).

Nosey and Billy, meanwhile, are plotting ways to get rid of Uncle Massy and, once Bobbie has the impressive yearly income, help themselves to a large portion of it.  Bobbie is rather wishy-washy, but willing to do anything to keep Nancy.  It's therefore no surprise to the reader when the titular Murder in Piccadilly occurs (in Piccadilly Underground station, in full view of hundreds of witnesses) and Uncle Massy is no more.

Enter Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard.  He has a pretty good idea of who was behind the murder, but with no many witnesses all claiming not to have seen anything, he's going to have a hard time proving anything.  In fact, his complete assurance of who was behind the murder (and who had absolutely no knowledge of it beforehand) seems to have come out of nowhere.  His discussions with his second in command, Detective-Sergeant Clarke, go over and over the suspects and why they are or are not involved, but never seem to have much evidence backing them up.

The action in the story is extremely slow, and the characters seem to have the same discussions over and over again.  There is a final "twist" that is, I assume, meant to confound the reader, but I thought the overall resolution was rather weak.  Also, some of the language will be rather startling to modern ears -- particularly the ethnic slurs that are thrown around rather casually.  I know that we are supposedly dealing with lower-class and uncouth individuals (those in Nancy's circle, anyway), but it's still rather jarring to read.

Sadly, even a London setting couldn't save this story!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Murder in Piccadilly from Poisoned Pen Press in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Murder in Piccadilly:  One Gherkin, for being a long, drawn-out mystery with an unsatisfying ending

Friday, May 15, 2015

A homogeneous plastic mess

In recent years, a movement to "eat clean" and limit the number of processed foods in the average diet has gained momentum.  The implication is that processed foods contain all sorts of unhealthy ingredients that we would be better off without.  The book This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?" breaks down everyday products to discover just what is in them. The book is made up of columns that originally appeared in Wired magazine.  In the preface to the book, the author, Patrick Di Justo, discusses how he first attempted to contact the manufacturers of the products to get their input on the articles.  Many of the larger companies were understandably suspicious of his motives and didn't want to cooperate.  Other companies were thrilled to have their products featured.  Any publicity is good publicity, right?

There are two sections, the first covering edible/consumable products, and the second household products.  The food section even gives the reader the low-down on Alpo. The individual ingredients are then examined to determine what part each plays in the overall make-up of the item.  Also, each product usually has a "backstory" which discusses the author's attempts to get the information about the product or further explains things like the history of the product or (in some cases) the more unpalatable aspects of the product (for instance, chocolate covered cherries contain enzymes that "pre-digest" the liquid center for you).

Still, most of the ingredients, while not sounding exactly appetizing, also don't sound particularly dangerous, either.  Naturally, most of the food products have added sugar, salt and fat to make them tastier (and probably more addicting).  I was really surprised to read that Enfamil baby formula contains an ingredient designed to "jump start" infant immune systems.  While this probably occurs naturally in breast milk, it was something I wouldn't have thought of as being part of the formula.

This book is full of interesting information (and the occasional snarky aside) which makes it enjoyable reading rather than a dry recitation of facts.  For instance, the author points out that protein deposits on contact lenses can "cloud your vision like a snot cataract."  As a contact lens wearer, I can appreciate the comparison (even if it does make me wince a bit!). One thing I learned (rather to my alarm) is that the aluminum in most deodorant products works by causing the pores of the underarm to swell shut and stop sweat from coming out.  So the non-food entries ended up being more disturbing for me!  Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book and finding out just what big companies are adding to their products.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth? from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On this site in 1782 nothing happened

Any book with a title like "Londonopolis" is a book that is guaranteed to grab my attention.  I had high hopes for the slim little book by Martin Latham, but sadly, other than a few interesting tidbits, I was generally disappointed by the book.  If you're like my husband, you may wonder why there are so many books constantly being published about London (and more to the point, why I own most of them), but the subject is so endlessly fascinating that each book seems to have something new to say, even on such a well covered topic.

Londonopolis is divided into sections based on time frames such as "Ancient London," "Medieval London," all the way up to "Twentieth-Century London."  There is one final chapter on The Secret Thames.  Each section is not just a straightforward history of London during the time mentioned, but rather contains an odd (in my mind) assortment of anecdotes and stories which I assume are meant to give an impression of the city at that particular time.  However, since the stories don't seem to have a unifying theme (other than that they happened to take place during a vaguely similar time frame), the overall result is unsatisfying.

For instance, in the chapter on Victorian London, there are stories about Big Ben's construction, Karl Marx's daughter, some of the scientists who worked at the Natural History Museum, a discussion of 6 artists who work working at this time, and a strange one-off ghost story featuring people you've never heard of (John Hernaman, anyone?).  Nothing really ties the stories together or really gives you any sort of feel for the time period.

The author is lucky enough to have grown up in London and so has a lot of personal memories of the city and people he encountered at various times, but even those stories aren't very interesting.  Maybe his family or acquaintances would enjoy the recollections, but they seem too personal to be of much use or entertainment to the casual reader.

If you feel that you've read everything there is to read about London, perhaps this book might have a few tidbits that would interest you. Otherwise, it's an odd collection of recitations about people and events that are of limited interest.

Final Verdict for Londonopolis: Two Gherkins, for being an ultimately disappointing look at London history

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Show people their shortcomings

Björn works for the Authority, a bureaucratic government agency, which will explain why he often escapes to The Room in the new book by Swedish author Jonas Karlsson.  He has a desk in the middle of a room of similar desks, but he's constantly annoyed by his co-workers.  They don't dress up to his standards, work up to his standards, or have sufficient intelligence to comprehend his superiority.  He does his work in regimented 55 minute stretches, allowing himself a break only at his self-appointed times.  Once, while on his way to the bathroom, he notices a door in the wall.  Upon opening it, he discovers a room.  There's nothing particularly special about the room.  It looks like a generic office with a desk and file cabinets.  When Björn steps into the room, however, he finds it very calming and peaceful.

His co-workers, never very fond of Björn and his strange ways, soon complain to the boss, Karl, about his odd behavior.  It seems that whenever Björn visits the room, what his co-workers observe is him standing completely still, staring off into space.  When he's in this position, they tell him, he acts as if he can't see or hear anyone else.

Björn attempts to convince himself and others that the room exists.  His put-upon boss tries to humor Björn, especially after Björn begins staying late and going into the room after everyone else has left.  He finds that while in the room, he's able to think more clearly and logically than ever before, and he is able to produce outstanding work.  His output has even caught the eye of superiors outside the department, who use it as a model for how all the work in the Authority should be performed from now on.

Naturally, this praise makes Björn feel as if he has the upper hand.  He begins setting conditions:  he must be allowed to go to the room whenever he wants, he asks for certain co-workers to be fired, etc.  As tensions build, the question remains:  does the room exist, or, as Björn thinks, is it being kept secret for some nefarious reason?

The book is short and quite funny in places.  Even though he's clearly socially isolated and awkward, Björn is sure that he is brilliant and that everyone else is jealous of him and plotting his downfall.  He never waivers in his beliefs that the room exits, or that he's on an unstoppable upward career trajectory, even if all indications are that he could be mistaken on both counts!

Jonas Karlsson, the author, is a well-known Swedish actor, famous for the films Cockpit and Bang Bang Orangutang.  It's really exciting to see him branching out so successfully into fiction writing.  I'm sure this will be made into a film soon!

Final Verdict for The Room: Four Gherkins, for being a thought-provoking book about differing perceptions of reality

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Be careful not to offend

Nina is a forty-something artist living in London with her husband and teenage daughter when she catches sight of someone from her past in Her by Harriet Lane.  The woman she spots, Emma, is a pregnant woman with a toddler.  When they do interact, it's obvious that Emma has no recollection of having met Nina at all.  So why is Emma so memorable to Nina?

The chapters in the book alternate between Nina and Emma.  Often, the same event will be told from each point of view in successive chapters.  It's clear from the beginning that Nina blames Emma for some upsetting event in her past, and that she's out to exact some sort of revenge.

At first, Nina's efforts seem to be just a way to keep in contact with Emma.  While Emma is distracted with her son, Nina is able to lift her wallet out of her purse.  She then calls Emma and tells her she found it on the ground, and offers to bring it around to her house (after carefully inspecting all the contents first).  When she gets to Emma's house, she's rather pleased to see that Emma's life is rather chaotic.  Emma has given up her job in television to raise her children, and her days seem consumed with domestic tasks, none of which she seems to take care of particularly well.  The house also seems rather shabby and in need of repairs.  Nina, on the other hand, is doing rather well both financially and professionally.

Nina's plan to somehow get back at Emma (for what we don't find out until nearly the end of the book) then take a slightly more sinister turn.  She leads Emma's young son, Christopher, away while his mother's back is turned in the park.  Nina then calls the police and says she found the boy on her doorstep.  She then convinces Emma that her daughter Sophie is available for babysitting duties, only to show up for the job herself.  Once Emma and her husband gratefully leave for their date night, Nina can then go through their house at leisure.  She doesn't do anything malicious -- she just paws thorough all their belongings.  And she makes sure young Christopher has plenty to drink before bedtime so he'll be sure to wet the bed.

When Nina invites Emma and her family to spend a week at her father's summer house in France, you know that things will probably hit a crisis point before everyone gets back to London.  All the while, Emma has no idea that she had a past encounter with Nina. She sees Nina as nothing other than a kind, helpful and pleasant friend.

The book sort of meanders along, slightly building tension without actually being "edge of your seat" suspenseful.  I was anxious to find out both what exactly it was that Emma did, and also just what Nina planned to do to get revenge.  Was the ending satisfying?  Well, not really.  Once Emma's big misdeed was revealed, it didn't seem like such a terrible transgression.  And perhaps Nina is just reacting to her daughter getting ready to go out on her own, but it seemed like she had way too much time on her hands.  Still, it was interesting trying to figure out where the book was going, and to see if Emma would ever catch on that Nina wasn't the friendly, generous person she seemed to be.  The main point of the book is interesting to ponder:  your actions, no matter what your intent might be, can easily be misinterpreted by others.

At the same time, as I read the book it seemed *so familiar* to me.  I had the nagging feeling that I'd read it before, but the copyright date is 2015, so I'm not sure which book I'm thinking of.  The story really did keep my interest, and of course, I was thrilled with all the references to places and streets in London!

Final Verdict for Her:   Four Gherkins, for being an interesting look at how people can misunderstand each other

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The millionaire lifestyle without $1 million

Author Timothy Ferriss claims to have discovered the way to become one of the New Rich without being tied to a regular, 9 to 5 job in the book The 4-Hour Workweek.  Most people have accepted the concept of deferred reward, and therefore spend 30 plus years in jobs they hate with people they dislike all for the promised reward of retirement.   If you follow the guidelines he sets out, you can begin enjoying your life now, rather than just gritting your teeth for the next few decades.

The mainstay of his plan is the DEAL process.  Definition, Elimination, Automation and Location are the 4 pillars of this guide.  By realizing what you want, avoiding that you don't, and automating your "cash flow," you can live anywhere and still reap the rewards.  Of course, everyone will want to know how to live on working so few hours per week.  The answer seems to be outsourcing.  Ferriss's first big foray into the business world was a "sports nutrition company" where he "outsourced everything from manufacturing to ad design."  That seems to be a very risky thing to do -- not just financially, but how can you ensure what is in the product (especially if it's being manufactured overseas) when you seemingly have no control of supervision over how it's made?  Even though he avoided (apparently) any lawsuits or other disasters, he was so stressed by running the business full-time that he sold it and looked for a better way to make a living. There are plenty of websites included to help you achieve each of the 4 parts of the DEAL process, as well as worksheets and examples to help you follow the plan.

Some of the advice is familiar:  you'll be more likely to shake off problems and obstacles if you are working in a field you love; failure should be seen as an opportunity to go in another (possibly more lucrative) direction; don't settle for something you don't feel passionate about, etc.  There is also a lot of what seems to be filler at the end -- posts from the author's blog, "case studies" (people who have followed this plan) and "bonus" chapters of two of the author's other books.  Still, for those who are very motivated to escape the daily grind, this book has lots of suggestions that might help to do that.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review