Monday, August 22, 2016

Can't we leave the snakes alone to do their snaky business?

Poor Gwen Marcey certainly has a lot on her plate in When Death Draws Near. An underemployed forensic artist, she's been commissioned to travel from her home in Montana to Pikeville, Kentucky to help draw a suspect in a series of vicious rapes.  At the same time, a recent bout of cancer has left her broke, and her ex-husband is threatening to sue her for full custody of their 15 year old daughter, Aynslee.  So when Gwen attempts to interview a victim who is recovering in the hospital, she's hoping to be able to do the sketch and get back to her life as soon as possible.

The hospitalized victim, Shelby Lee, refuses to say anything, so Gwen resolves to return later, and this time not be accompanied by the local Sheriff, Clay Reed, who doesn't seem too thrilled to have Gwen in town anyway.  Gwen isn't able to follow through, because she soon learns that Shelby Lee has checked herself out of the hospital and disappeared -- just like several previous victims.  When the young clerk of the hotel where Gwen is staying disappears in the middle of her shift, Gwen is terrified that the "Hillbilly Rapist" has struck again.

Not only is Sheriff Reed unhappy with Gwen's presence in town . . . it seems that someone else is, too.  Walking home from dinner one night Gwen is nearly run down, and later she finds a rattle snake in her bed.  Due to various events in town (who knew Pikeville was such a happenin' place?), there are no other hotel options for Gwen.  Luckily, Sheriff Reed tells her that the people who wanted to bring her in on the case from the beginning, Blanche and Arless Campbell, have insisted that she come and stay with them.  The Campbells are wealthy and influential.  Arless Campbell is a state senator with higher political aspirations.  Blanche is doing all she can to improve the image of eastern Kentucky.  Between them, they want all suggestion of crime, poverty or general "backwardness" removed from Pikeville.

All of this ties in with a second issue that Gwen becomes involved with: the practice of snake handling during religious services.  Since she's in town, Gwen is asked to do a facial recreation sketch for an unidentified body that has been found in the woods, apparently killed by a snake bite.  Gwen does such a good job that the young man's parents gratefully ask her to attend his funeral.  Once Gwen's new hosts, the Campbells, hear this, they ask her to attend and come back and draw sketches of the people who attend the funeral.  Since Senator Campbell has gotten a law passed in Kentucky forbidding the practice of snake handling, he wants the members of this particular church exposed so that he can enforce the law and hopefully stamp out the practice for good. Gwen (and eventually her daughter, Aynslee, who comes to stay with her) both face danger as they are unsure if they can trust anyone or if the snake handling church is looking to silence its critics.

I appreciate that the author was trying to demonstrate that, even if their practices seem strange to outsiders, the free practice of religion (by consenting adults) is one of the foundations of this country.  I didn't like the fact that it appeared the author had done some research for this book, and by golly, she was going to make sure to impart that to the reader.  For instance, when she attends a service at the snake handling church, an African-American woman makes sure to come up to Gwen and let her know that the Pentacostal  movement was started in Los Angeles in the African-American community.  Job done, that character wanders off and is never mentioned again.  Another strange thing is near the beginning of the book when Gwen and Sheriff Reed seem to play "serial killer Jeopardy" with each other (one giving characteristics and the other providing the name of a particular serial killer).  Very odd, especially since they don't seem to like each other and don't really get along otherwise. You'd think bonding over serial killer talk would allow them to warm to one another, but not in this case!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of When Death Draws Near from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Friday, July 15, 2016

Not too late to join the floury fun!


So I am a little bit late to the excitement this year, but the wonderful Great British Baking Show is currently MUST SEE viewing on Friday evenings!  This season began July 1, but there are still plenty of bakers vying for the weekly title of Star Baker, as well as the overall crowning glory of winning the entire thing!  The finale was the most-watched program in the UK in 2015, so you know you don't want to miss it!

Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have to once again put the amateur bakers through their paces as they tackle such challenges as cakes, breads, biscuits (cookies to you and me) and desserts.  Each episode gives the contestants 3 chances to prove their skills (or fail miserably!).  First is the Signature Challenge, where the bakers are making usually tried and true recipes that they are familiar with.  Next is the Technical Challenge, which tests the contestants' abilities to figure out how to make the recipe with only the vaguest of instructions.  Finally, the Showstopper usually features creations of jaw-dropping complexity and appearance.

If you miss an episode or need to catch up will be available to stream each morning after broadcast at http://www.pbs.org/show/great-british-baking-show/. It will also be available on PBS station-branded digital platforms, such as ROKU, Apple TV and Google Chromecast, and on PBS iPad and iPhone apps. Throughout the season, fans can visit PBS Food to learn more about the contestants and get exclusive recipes, photos and video clips from the program. If you want to discuss the program with your fellow enthusiasts online, use the hashtag #PBSBakingShow.

Check your local listings, but most areas are seeing The Great British Baking Show on PBS Fridays at 9:00 pm.  Now, am I brave enough to test out any of the recipes?  I must be sure and test my fire extinguisher and smoke detectors before I begin!





Wednesday, July 13, 2016

This nun is blue for several reasons

Sister Eve Divine, the motorcycle riding nun who moonlights as a private detective is on a new case in Sister Eve and the Blue Nun.  As well as investigating a murder, Sister Eve is at a crossroads in her life.  The monastery where she has lived and worked for many years has suddenly banned the nuns who lived there.  They have all had to leave their longtime home and find new orders to join.  In Sister Eve's case, she has moved back home with her father, retired police Captain Jackson Divine who now runs a detective agency.

Sister Eve is back at the monastery in order to attend a conference about the 17th century Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda.  Sister Maria hasn't yet been declared a saint, but she performed the miracle of bilocation -- living in Spain and yet also appearing at the same time to the Native American Jumano Indians in what is now New Mexico.  The featured speaker at the conference, Dr. Kelly Middlesworth, is going to drop a bombshell during her speech:  that writings from Sister Maria have been discovered that prove she actually visited New Mexico.  Dr. Middlesworth got these writings from her brother, Anthony, who is a monk at the monastery. While he was doing some work at a remote church, he found the writings and smuggled them out to show his sister.  He only intended to show them to her before returning them to their rightful place at the church, but Kelly is determined that the world should know of their existence.  The evening before her speech, however, she is found dead in her room at the monastery.  It is her brother Anthony who finds her, and instead of calling for help, he immediately goes to Sister Eve for help.

Eve confirms that Kelly is dead and begins looking around the room for clues as to what happened.  She suspects that Kelly was poisoned.  As she's investigating, Father Oliver, the head of the monastery arrives.  Anthony also told him of his sister's death.  As the two of them try to decide what to do, the police arrive.  Who called them remains a mystery.  It soon transpires that Anthony, after leaving behind a somewhat incriminating letter for Father Oliver, has disappeared.  Eve knows that Anthony wouldn't have harmed his sister, but who did have a motive to kill her?  And where are the writings of Sister Maria that are missing from Kelly's room?

As Eve determines to get to the truth, she's thrown an unexpected curve ball in the person of a hunky police detective, Earl Lujan.  Whenever he's around doing questioning, Eve begins to feel all lightheaded.  Surely there's not a romance on the horizon???

The book progresses with Eve putting herself in dangerous situations while trying to get at the truth.  At the same time, she struggles with trying to decide what she should do with her life.  She hoped to stay at the monastery, but the archbishop has, for unknown and unexplained reasons, decided that the monks and nuns can no longer live together and the nuns must go.  After taking a vow of obedience, the nuns have no choice but to leave, but the whole thing doesn't sit well with Sister Eve.  She begins to question her future as a nun, as well as whether women have ever had a place in the church.  The mistreatment of Sister Maria, who was questioned repeatedly by the Inquisition during her lifetime, has echoed down through the centuries and shown that women are still being treated as second-class citizens by the male-dominated church.

This is the third book in the Sister Eve series, so I'm sure there are more to come.  It will be interesting to see what Eve decides to do with her life (although she seems to enjoy poking her nose into other people's business and listening outside doors too much to give up being a private detective).  It will also be interesting to see if anything develops with Detective Lujan in the romance department, something I'm sure Sister Eve hadn't expected in her life!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Sister Eve and the Blue Nun from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I didn't die laughing (as promised)

On a recent trip to London, during one of my many browsing sessions in bookstores, I came across this slim volume that sounded intriguing.  Dead Funny is a collection of short horror stories by comedians.  Looking through the table of contents, I recognized many of the names, including Richard Herring, Katy Brand, Phill Jupitus and Reece Shearsmith.  Many of the other authors were unknown to me, but apparently are well-known in the UK.

The collection begins with "Dog" by Reece Shearsmith.  This recounts a young boy's discussion of his distaste for dogs, why he blames dogs for his brother's death, and how he went about getting his revenge on the canine race.  The following stories, not surprisingly, were a bit uneven.  Some were interesting enough, but others I had to stop before finishing because they just didn't capture my interest.  There are stories about horrifying spiders (I'm sure we can all relate), puppets, vampires and evil entities conjured up by Ouija board.

My favorite story in the collection was "The Patient" by Mitch Benn.  It described a perfectly calm and methodical doctor who has obviously been driven insane by the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of a drunk driver.  When the culprit is given an insultingly short prison sentence, the doctor is waiting to exact his own protracted form of revenge on the man once he's released. However, all doesn't go according to plan. The other story I especially enjoyed was "For Roger" by Katy Brand.  In this story, retired Roger, while searching for mice, uncovers a diary in his own handwriting hidden in the attic.  It is for the near future, and recounts some disturbing events.  Can he prevent them from happening, and how did he manage to foretell the future?

After reading the collection, I can say that if there was meant to be any humor in the stories, I missed it completely.  I can see where the horror aspect of most of the stories was included, but anyone looking for humor with their horror will be disappointed!  I was interested to see that several of the authors used the same "twist" at the end -- recounting a person or event that is later revealed to the reader not to have existed.

All in all, the stories were enjoyable if not exactly side-splitting.  It was great to read some fiction by some performers that I have enjoyed in the comedy realm over the years.

Final Verdict for Dead Funny Three Gherkins, for living up to the horror, if not the funny promise of the title

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Make peace with your frenemies before it's too late!

Rowan Winter is regretting that she didn't make peace with her best friend from childhood, Marianne Glass, before it was too late in Keep You Close.  Marianne has recently died after a fall off her roof, and her death brings back many upsetting memories for her estranged friend Rowan.

Rowan's mother died when she was a baby, and her father was frequently away on business, leaving Rowan with a distant housekeeper.  Luckily, her friend Marianne's family became like a surrogate family to her, taking Rowan in and allowing her to stay there any time she pleased.  She admired Marianne's parents, Jacqueline and Seb, even if she began to see cracks in their relationship.  She and Marianne were inseparable throughout their school years, and Rowan also had a massive crush on Marianne's brother, Adam.

Everything was going well until Seb began an affair with a young woman named Lorna.  It begins to look as if this affair (unlike his many others) will finally succeed in tearing the family apart.  Before there is a final split, Lorna is killed in an accident, and not long after Seb dies also.  These tragic events served to sever the relationship between Rowan and Marianne, but what exactly caused the estrangement?

It's been a decade, and in that time, Marianne has become a world-famous artist.  She is living with a man named James Greenwood who has a teenage daughter.  Rowan continued her education, eventually working as a researcher at the BBC.  Recently, she's given up her job to concentrate on getting another degree.  Since she is not bound to a job, Marianne's family asks if she would stay in the old family home (where Marianne died) in Oxford as a house-sitter, just until they can find a buyer for the house.  Rowan is pleased to be back where so much of her youth was spent happily.  At the same time, she begins to question what really happened to Marianne.  She knows that Marianne suffered from vertigo, and wouldn't have gone up on the roof by herself voluntarily.  Yet the police believe that's exactly what happened, since there was snow on the ground, and only one set of footprints, so Marianne must have been alone when she fell from the roof.  So was it an accident, or suicide, or did someone manage to push her off the roof after all?

Rowan soon begins an affair with Adam, taking up where they never got started as teenagers.  There is soon another, somewhat unwelcome presence, on the scene:  Michael Cory.  Michael is also an artist, although one who courts controversy.  He had apparently been growing close to Marianne before her death, and he's also trying to get to the bottom of what really happened to her.   Plenty of strange things are happening as well, including Marianne's conviction before her death that someone was breaking in and stealing her work, a strange man who seems to be spying on the house from across the street, and an unknown figure that hides in the back garden and always manages to escape just before Rowan can intervene.  Just what do these people have to do with Marianne's death, and does her death have anything to do with the events that fractured her friendship with Rowan?

I enjoyed the Oxford setting of this book, having recently returned from a visit to that lovely city!  Rowan seems like a bit of a drip, not really having any direction in life or real ambition to do anything much (she's always putting off doing any "work" toward her degree).  The story does take an unexpected turn about three quarters of the way through, and the rest of the book is very exciting as we try to see if the mysteries of the past will be able to stay hidden, or if they will explode with unwelcome consequences in the present (guess which?).

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Keep You Close from the publisher in exchange for this review

Ideas for making your day better

All of us, no matter what our current occupation, have good days and bad days at work.  The author Caroline Webb has distilled her experience as a management consultant and her research in behavioral science and psychology to give us seven building blocks on How to Have a Good Day.

First of all, it helps to understand what is meant by having a good day. Some of the ingredients include: feeling productive, confidence in your work, knowing you have the support of others and feeling more energized than exhausted at the end of the day.  So how do we ensure that we have more good days?  The author includes a chart that explains the process of having a good day: starting with priorities and increasing productivity, followed by having meaningful interactions, putting your most creative self forward while having a visible impact and at the same time being to overcome adversity and remain energetic.  Easier said than done, right?

The subtitle of the book is "Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform your Working Life" so the author looks at some scientific research into how the brain works and how we can go about re-programming it (if necessary).  The three main themes that are quoted are deliberate vs. automatic, threat vs. reward, and mind vs. body.  By looking at these three areas, we can become more mindful and deliberate in choosing how we respond to events throughout our day.

My favorite chapter was definitely "Boosting Your Brainpower."  It gives many concrete ways that you can improve your attitude and concentration in order to best attack any task.  I plan to look back on these techniques when I'm wrestling with a difficult problem to get some perspective on ways to approach it which might make it seem more manageable.  Even things such as getting enough sleep and a few short bursts of moderate exercise every day are helpful and suggestions that I'm sure we all can follow!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of How to Have a Good Day from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Preaching the love of all animals

Sarah Withrow King, the author of Vegangelical, always felt the desire to help others.  She knew that her mission in life was to serve those less fortunate, although she didn't really have a direction until she happened to read a pamphlet about the suffering of animals raised for food.  This led to her becoming a vegan and refusing to use products made from or tested on animals.  After college, she began working for PETA, where her devotion to animal rights issues didn't always sit well with her church family.  A devout Christian, King was horrified by the justifications that humans use to harm animals, which she saw as "God's created beings."  Eventually, she attended seminary in order to better merge her faith with her vocation.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first discusses how humans, being made in the image of God, should interpret the ideas of stewardship and love towards animals.  The second part is a stark look at how animals are currently used in a variety of ways by humans:  as pets, as entertainment, for food, for clothing, for research purposes, etc.  There are plenty of examples of cruel and unnecessary treatment of animals which help to illustrate the author's compassionate and faith-based advocacy for better treatment for all creatures.  Each chapter ends with questions designed to help the reader think more deeply about the issues raised.  The conclusion gives suggestions for how people can begin to be more thoughtful in their daily lives in order to incorporate the principles in the book. Throughout the book she quotes Biblical passages which support her ideas. It was very interesting to read about the author's own struggles to give up meat and adapt to meals/gatherings where she is often the only vegan present.  Of course she lists all the ways that giving up animal products in her diet has helped her become more healthy, but she doesn't skip over how difficult it was initially to overcome her cravings for meat and cheese.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Vegangelical from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review