Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Stella gets her 15 minutes

I knew that one of my favorite writers, Marian Keyes, had a new novel coming out, so I was thrilled to be able to buy it a few weeks early on my recent trip to London (it had already been released in the UK).  It was a good thing I decided to invest in the book, since long delays at the airport meant that I had plenty of time to get engrossed in the story.

The Woman Who Stole My Life concerns Stella Sweeney, a Dublin-based woman who is the author of the recent book One Blink at a Time.  Stella had suddenly developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome and spent months in the hospital recovering.  She was unable to speak or move and could only communicate by blinking her eyes.  Her neurologist, Dr. Mannix Taylor, takes the time to actually try to talk to her, working out the blinking code to ask questions.

Stella is married to Ryan, but their marriage, after 18 years, has reached a somewhat boring plateau.  Ryan has always dreamed of becoming an artist, but through a series of events has gotten into the custom bathroom remodeling business. He's very successful, but unfulfilled.  Their two children are typical teenagers:  Betsy is dreamy and laid-back, while Jeffrey is petulant and moody.  Stella co-owns a salon with her more driven sister, Karen. When the illness strikes, everyone must try to get along without her.  At the same time, there seems to be an undeniable spark between Stella and her neurologist . . .

Once she's back home and recovering from her illness, Stella is stunned to receive a box of books.  It seems that while blinking out messages to Mannix, he was keeping a log of her thoughts and sayings.  He's assembled them into a book and had it privately printed.  Stella is touched and gives out the books to family and friends.  When one of her books makes its way into the hands of a celebrity, suddenly agents and publishers are knocking at her door.

Eventually, Stella splits fairly amicably with Ryan and, after a similarly civilized divorce between Mannix and his too-good-to-be-true wife Georgie, the former patient and her doctor begin a torrid relationship -- much to the disgust of Jeffrey.  The publishers are so enthusiastic about the prospects for Stella's book that they insist she relocate to New York City to begin book tours and publicity work.  Mannix quits his job and follows along, as do the children.  Ryan is understandably miffed that his ex-wife is becoming world-famous when he is the "artist" in the family.

During exhausting rounds of publicity, Stella is grateful for the help of her new best friend.  Gilda Ashley bumps into Stella in a store, and immediately becomes her personal trainer, stylist, and confidant.  But is Gilda really too good to be true?

The book shifts back and forth in time, with present-day scenes letting us know that Stella is back in Ireland, broke, jobless, and without Mannix.  So what happened to the glamorous NYC life?  Those events fill out the story, as she struggles with her new-found fame, and the demands of trying to write a follow-up book.

Marian Keyes's books have always been favorites of mine due to being laugh-out-loud funny, while at the same time dealing with difficult and sometimes tragic subjects.  This book did have some funny moments, but overall, it was something of a let-down.  Stella was so wish-washy, especially where loutish son Jeffrey was concerned, that it was hard to feel anything but exasperation for her.  There were also some very strange elements to the story, such as when she and Mannix were faced with financial difficulties -- it apparently never dawned on either of them that he could just resume his medical career.

I'm always thrilled to read a new book by this wonderful author, but I can only hope that in the next one she'll regain her comedic spark.  She's already given each of the Walsh sisters her own book, but maybe she'll discover a long-lost Walsh cousin or something to take up the reigns of the next story!

Final Verdict for The Woman Who Stole My Life: Two Gherkins a somewhat disappointing look at the life of an expected celebrity

Monday, June 8, 2015

It is better to keep a secret and die, than tell it and live

I remembered reading some news stories about some clusters of suicides among young people in a Welsh town, and was intrigued that the plot of the book What You Left Behind seemed to focus on the same type of phenomenon.  Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher comes to the sleepy rural English town of Radcote to visit her sister, Jo.  Radcote was the scene of a rash of suicides among young people a few years previously, and recently it seems as if the cycle is starting up again.

Jo, who has a history of expecting Lorraine to bail her out of trouble, is separated from her partner and has an 18 year old son, Freddie.  Freddie is moping about, being generally moody and uncommunicative, but it turns out his behavior is due to more than growing pains.  For several weeks, he's been the target of a particularly nasty online bullying campaign.  He hasn't told anyone about it, but he is becoming increasingly disturbed by it.

Jo is close to some people in town, Tony and Sonia Hawkeswell, whose son Simon recently committed suicide.  Sonia tries to overcome her grief by working at the local homeless shelter, and she's browbeaten her daughter Lana into also volunteering there.  Sonia has decided that Lana is going to become a doctor and that volunteering will look good on her university applications.  Their household is also made up of Tony's autistic brother, Gil.  Gil lives in a separate building from the main house, but is pretty much involved in everything the family does.  He's also an extremely talented artist.  When Lorraine sees a drawing he made of the scene of another supposed suicide, she becomes convinced that all the new suicides might instead be foul play.

I really wanted to like this book, due to the setting and intriguing premise, but it was too annoying to be enjoyable.  All of the characters seem to be harboring secrets, which they refuse to tell anyone, but which could likely be easily remedied if they would just SAY SOMETHING!  You know it's all going to come out in the end, so why keep going over and over how, for instance, Freddie just *can't* tell anyone about the bullying because "that would make it worse."  Just how exactly, we never hear.  It's not that Freddie is embarrassed about being targeted, or afraid of physical harm -- his reasoning is that the non-stop online abuse "will get worse."  Um, OK . . . As the various characters are wrestling with their secrets which they can't tell anyone, they seem to continue to have the same conversations over and over (especially Freddie and Lana).  Nothing ever gets sorted out and they continue to cover the same useless ground over and over, chapter after chapter.

The author does try to throw in a few red-herrings to point us toward several suspects, but I'm still not very clear on why some of the suicides were arranged to look like murder. By the end, we know who the supposed murderer was, but the motivation is still murky.  There are also lots of forged suicide notes, false confessions to crimes and contradictory statements (in one chapter Lorraine has read a supposed suicide note, in the next she's wondering what was in the note) which don't really add up to a cohesive and enjoyable story.  The novel ends with something that is supposed to be a shocking twist, but by that time I'd long since stopped trying to make any sense of what the characters were doing and why.

Disclaimer:   I received a copy of What You Left Behind from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

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