Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Return to sender

When I first read about the Burley Cross Postbox Theft, it sounded like a book for me.  A postbox is vandalized and the letters found discarded in a yard in a sleepy English village.  The police must investigate to figure out what happened and who is responsible.  Because quite a large number of letters have been left behind, the police must attempt to determine what is missing and why.  For some reason, the police investigators decide that they must read all of the recovered letters.

Unfortunately, the entire book consists of letters, both from the police and the residents.  This wouldn't be a problem, except that there are SO MANY of them, and most of the writers have an annoying tendency to ramble, put in lots of unnecessary asides (one even has footnotes) and otherwise lead the reader far, far from the story.  There are so many letters that it's basically impossible to keep all the people in the story straight, without some sort of diagram or chart of the village and who lives where.

Once the mystery of the burgled postbox is finally revealed, of course it transpires that the vast majority of letters had nothing to do with the theft, but rather, I suppose, were an effort to demonstrate the intense rivalries, jealousies and gossip that takes place in a small town.  I would have liked more story and fewer characters to keep track of.  Some of the letters were amusing, but still, there were simply too many of them!  The events in the story take place around Christmas time in 2006, but even so, I would think that people had somewhat slowed down in the posting of letters by that time.

Final Verdict for Burley Cross Postbox Theft:    Two Gherkins, for being a mildly amusing but wildly confusing account of a small-time crime in an awfully wordy village


Friday, April 11, 2014

A close call leads to good works

Most of us who had a brush with going to prison would choose to run as far away from it as possible and never look back.  When Brenda Spahn faced the prospect of a long jail term, she made a pact with God:  if she could avoid prison, she would spend the rest of her life doing his work.  The book Miss Brenda and the Loveladies tells the story of what happened when Miss Brenda decided to devote her life to helping women newly released from prison.

Before her brush with the wrong side of the law, Brenda Spahn seemed to have it all:  a flourishing business, wonderful children, a new successful husband, several expensive houses, and more clothes than she could ever possibly wear.  Having grown up in poverty, she had made a vow to be successful, and she had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.  When one of her business associates was arrested and facing jail time, she claimed that Brenda was falsifying returns in her tax preparation business.  The authorities didn't do much investigating (from Brenda's perspective), but just came in and started putting her entire family under a microscope.  She finally agreed to a plea bargain which allowed her to stay out of jail, but which also meant she had lost much of what she'd spent her life building up.

Still, she didn't lose her faith and she determined to keep her bargain with God.  She decided to start visiting jails to see what she had so narrowly escaped.  While initially terrified of the incarcerated women, once she started volunteering at the prison, she quickly realized that most of the women had been abused their entire lives (and that the abuse by authority figures was continuing in prison).  She was dismayed to see people get released, only to return quickly to prison.  After learning that the women were given no support or efforts at rehabilitation when they left prison, she realized she had found her calling: to establish a "whole-way house" (as opposed to the traditional "half-way house") where the women would receive support, training, counseling, and spiritual guidance.

As luck would have it, her real estate executive husband just happened to have a seven-bedroom, six bath house that wasn't selling.  Miss Brenda decided this would be the perfect place to do her work.  She had anticipated that the women sent to live there would be like the ones she was used to working with in work release programs -- non-violent, motivated women who would be receptive to help.  The prison authorities decided, however, that this foolish woman should be taught a lesson quickly, and sent her seven of the toughest cases they could find .  These seven women had been convicted of a variety of crimes and were hostile, angry and suspicious.

Brenda soon learned that most of the women had suffered from such severe abuse and neglect as children that they had no idea how to do the simplest tasks.  Making beds, setting the table and doing laundry were things they had never done before.  She also learned that years of institutionalization had left them fearful and rigid.  During their first outing, to Wal-Mart to buy clothes and toiletries, the women were dazed and intimidated by the wide variety of products available to them.

Brenda soon realized that each woman needed responsibility to be trusted with various tasks. At first the women felt that they were being brought in to be "maids" and work for free, or else that "Miss Brenda" was collecting some sort of government assistance for taking them in and getting rich off them.  Soon, however, they began to respond to being responsible for doing laundry, or cooking, or watching Brenda's young son.  Once someone trusted them, they became more confident and less resentful.

Things were going well until a newspaper article, meant to showcase the good work being done, instead alarmed and inflamed people who lived in the neighborhood.  These people reacted with fear and hostility to the idea of all these criminals and drug addicts living next door to them.  While this caused a minor blip in the work done by Miss Brenda, she soon found that it was instrumental in allowing her to expand her reach to help even more women.

Along the way, Brenda finds that, although the Loveladies (so named because this was Brenda's maiden name) learned a new way of life from her, she and her family also learned many valuable lessons from them as well.  I was really inspired by Brenda's spunk and tenacity.  Even when she was afraid, she never doubted that she had been called to do this work.  She endured the belittlement of authorities, anger from her family, fear from the neighbors and her own doubts to found the "largest faith-based transitional center for women and their children in the country."  Not bad for a woman whose biggest concern not long before was where to go for her next luxury vacation!

For more information about the center, visit their website: The Lovelady Center 

Disclaimer:  I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Taking over someone else's life for fun and profit

As many people have found out the hard way, these days it's easy to fabricate a new existence online.  You can pretend to be anyone you want and hide behind the cloak of anonymity, generally without any repercussions.  This idea is the main force in the story which takes place in Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach.

Leila is a socially awkward young woman who has spent the past few years of her life caring for her mother, who was slowly dying from multiple sclerosis.  Even though she didn't socialize very much, once her mother died, Leila was left pretty much alone in the world.  She moved into her own apartment in London and (thanks to one of her mother's friends) got a job testing software from home.  In her spare time, she mostly played online video games.  It was through one of these games that she was introduced to the online forum called Red Pill.  People on this site discussed philosophical issues, and those who were found to be "worthy" by the site's creator (a shadowy figure named Adrian) were invited into a private discussion group.

Eventually, Leila impresses Adrian enough for him to request an in-person meeting with her.  Since Adrian has achieved something of a God-like status in the Red Pill community, Leila feels thrilled to be noticed by him.  Once they meet, he presents her with a proposal:  he wants Leila to take on the online persona of another person.  The person in question, Tess, has decided to commit suicide, but doesn't want to upset her family and friends.  She wants to kill herself but have Leila continue to impersonate her online so that no one will know she's dead.  Eventually, Leila can begin to distance herself from everyone and gradually cease contact so that the truth won't be known.  Tess will simply fade out and her contacts will believe she's still alive, just not very communicative.

Leila accepts the assignment.  She's asked how much she wants to be paid for the job, and she comes up with the bare minimum she will need for rent and food.  Because she's going to have to learn to be Tess, she quits her software job.  She gets contact with Tess and begins learning about her friends, her background, and her style of communicating.  This is all done online, although Tess does appear on a webcam from time to time so Leila can get a sense of her personality.

Once Tess has set a deadline for their contact (when she's going to end her life, in other words), it's up to Leila to come up with a plan for why Tess is suddenly physically gone (although still active online).  She solves the problem by having Tess move across the world to a small island off the coast of Vancouver.  Eventually, a man, Connor, contacts "Tess" and brings up things from a relationship the two of them had that Leila knows nothing about.   Their relationship must not have been very important to Tess, since she never mentioned him, but Connor seems to be still in love with Tess.  Even though she's only pretending to be Tess, Leila finds herself developing feelings for Connor.

There are also interludes scattered throughout the book in which Leila is at a commune in Spain, attempting to find out what happened to Tess.  One of Tess's friends mentioned seeing her in Spain not long before, so Leila thinks that might be a good place to start.  Eventually, there is a surprising twist to the story that causes Leila to face some unpleasant facts.

I thought the story was quite interesting, even if I did have some problems with it.  For instance, if Tess wanted to simply "fade away" by gradually decreasing online contact with her loved ones, why not do it herself?  Why involve other people?  I also didn't understand where the money for this project was coming from.  Tess would be dead, and Leila had very little money to begin with (she had to take in a lodger when there was an unexpected plumbing problem in her flat), so I didn't understand where she got the money for an impromptu trip to Spain.

Still, the story was quite engaging and I was interested to see where it was going to end up.  I also liked the unexpected revelations that came up toward the end of the story.  The London setting didn't hurt, either!

Final Verdict for Kiss Me First:   Four Gherkins, for being a page-turning thriller with an unbeatable setting

You don't have to be rich to make a difference

Many people would like the opportunity to make a difference in the world, but don't really have any idea where to begin.  They may think that they don't have enough money to help others, or that they lack specialized knowledge.  On the other hand, there are so many problems in the world that just knowing where to start can be challenging.

The book I Like Giving by Brad Formsma tackles all the questions that potential helpers might have, as well as giving many inspirational stories which will encourage everyone to give what they can.

A major focus of the book is the effect that giving has on the giver.  Multiple studies have shown that spending money on others or giving to charity increased the giver's well-being and leads to higher levels of happiness.  I also enjoyed reading about how college students who planned to enter "helping" professions later reported greater levels of happiness than those who were in professions that made a great deal of money.  Givers should also focus on the act of giving and not on the expected response of the recipient.  Expecting too much praise or gratitude will detract from the experience.

The author also discusses how everyone should look for opportunities every day to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  You should avoid the "nasty 4 letter words" that might become obstacles to this mission:  debt, fear, busy, etc.  The gift doesn't have to involve money, can be anonymous and should have no strings attached.  This helps the giver to constantly be on the lookout for ways to give and make a difference.  The potential giver's attitude should be "how do I get to give" -- not feel like an obligation.

Sprinkled throughout the book are personal stories from people and how they were able to put the giving project into action.  It was very inspiring to read the stories of people who set out to make the lives of those around them better.  Frequently, the whole family gets involved and the tradition of giving is passed on throughout the generations.  There are many stories of people who woke up one day hoping for a chance to make a difference, and before long that opportunity presented itself.  Each story begins "I Like . . ." followed by what was given (such as "I Like Nursing Fees").

To get inspired to increase your own spirit of giving, check out the following links:
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Odd, he usually only growls at policemen

Unfortunately, murders happen all over the world.  Fortunately for us, Agatha Christie's murder mysteries can be adapted using local characters and settings while keeping the Queen of Crime's basic outlines.  One such adaptation is the delightful series Les Petits Meurtres D'Agatha Christie, which features the French Superintendent Larosière solving crimes in 1930s France as well as Commissioner Laurence working on equally vexing cases in the 1950s.  This set features 7 full-length mysteries which originally aired in France between 2009 and 2012.

Episodes 1-6 star Antoine Duléry as the suave and charming Superintendent Larosière and Marius Colucci as the under appreciated Inspector Lampion.  Episode One is Les Meurtres ABC (based on "The ABC Murders").  A ceremony to give Larosière an award is interrupted by the news of a murder.  A young woman is found dead on a beach, but this is only the beginning.  Soon Larosière begins to receive letters announcing where the next murder will take place.  The victim's names and towns all begin with the same letters, and an ABC bus timetable is found at the site of all the murders.  Young Inspector Duval is sent to investigate the murders, leading Larosière to contemplate handing in his notice.  Unluckily for the murderer, Lampion is able to talk him out of such drastic action.

Note the photo on the wall of the great Christie herself!
The second episode, Am Stram Gram is based on the Christie novel "Ordeal by Innocence."  This one shows Christie's knack for gathering a group of suspects in a lovely, upper class setting, and watching as the master detective attempts to sort out the various lies and motives.  In this instance, a wealthy woman has been killed in her home.  Unable to have children of her own, she had adopted many children who had previously been living in terrible circumstances.  Rather than being grateful for their rescue, all of the children have grown up resentful, and to varying degrees, angry at their mother.  Did one of them hate her enough to hit her over the head with the fireplace poker?  One of the children eventually was convicted of the murder, but now a new alibi witness has come forward . . .

"Peril at End House" was the inspiration for episode three.  Larosière gets personally involved in this case when he falls for the beautiful designer who is in danger.  During a stroll on the beach while on vacation, Larosière meets the beautiful Josephine.  As in the previous episode, this character also has a houseful of relatives and guests.  She introduces them all to Larosière, and then invites him back to the house.  While there, Josephine narrowly escapes being killed when a large decorative lantern crashes to the ground in front of her.  There are other unsuccessful attempts on her life, until one night her cousin Eleonore is shot and killed while wearing Josephine's shawl.  Was it a case of mistaken identity? Larosière must figure out what is going on before the woman he's fallen in love with becomes the next victim.

A girl's boarding school is the setting for the story based on "Cat Among the Pigeons" and so there are a huge number of potential suspects (and victims!) among the students and instructors.  A woman is found buried in the woods on the school grounds, and while this doesn't seem to have anything to do with the school, it's still unsettling.  Poor Lampion is really tested in this episode, as he's ordered to attend the autopsy of the dead woman.  He also gets into some hot water with one of the students at the school.  The lovely princess of Turkestan arrives at the school after the assassination of her father in their homeland, and there is some suspicion that the deaths (for of course, more follow the first one!) might be related to the turmoil in that far-off land.  Larosière's past also comes back to haunt him, as he discovers a former love is employed at the school.

 Poor Lampion once again is put to the test in episode five, based on "Sad Cypress."  His old friend Louis comes and asks him to investigate a situation involving his employer.  Anonymous letters have started showing up hinting that someone is going to be murdered.  The employer is an older, wheelchair-bound lady who has suddenly become dedicated to the suffragette movement.  She is going to be hosting a feminist retreat at her house, and the keynote speaker, author of the renowned book "The Oppressed Sex" has had to cancel.  Larosière sees an excellent opportunity for himself and Lampion to go undercover and sort out the situation.  Of course, he, Larosière, will go as the husband, so that leaves only one role for Lampion.  On the evening before the big event, there is a murder and it's up to the undercover couple to figure out what happened before more people are killed.

"The Body in the Library" is the basis for the final episode featuring Larosière and Lampion.  Rather than a library, this episode concerns a body found in Larosière's bed -- that of a strangled prostitute. Unfortunately, he had been drinking heavily the night before and has no idea how the dead woman wound up in his bed, or if he was responsible for killing her.  Since Larosière is directly involved in the case, he cannot investigate, so Superintendent Deville is brought in.  He has no problem believing Larosière is responsible, and orders him arrested.  It's up to Lampion to investigate the case, since Deville does all of his "investigating" on the golf course.  Making the case even more perplexing is the disappearance of a farm girl on the same evening as the murder of the prostitute.  Can the cases be linked?

Episode Seven jumps ahead 20 years to the 1950s, but the location is once again a country estate full of suspects.  "They Do It With Mirrors" forms the basis for this story, which begins with the murder of one of the residents of the Helping Hand Center.  This institution was formed by Etienne Bousquet and his wife Rose-Marie on the grounds of her large estate.  They take in young men who are either in trouble with the legal system or are otherwise unable to care for themselves.  One of the men is found dead and sent to investigate is Superintendent Laurence (Samuel Labarthe), newly on the job.  He drives a sporty red car, and otherwise attracts female attention as a stylish, sophisticated presence. Soon there is another murder at the house. The case also comes to the attention of reporter Alice Avril, played by Blandine Bellavoir. She's been stuck writing the "Agony Aunt" column for the local newspaper, but yearns to be a real journalist.  She gets an undercover job as a maid at the house, and strikes a deal with Laurence to share information about the case -- with the understanding she won't write about the case until after it's solved.  Alice becomes convinced Laurence isn't sharing everything he knows, so she decides to trap the killer herself.

The episodes featuring Larosière and Lampion are quite funny due to the relationship between the two characters.  Larosière is something of a dictator, always ordering Lampion to do the distasteful or embarrassing jobs, while at the same time showing loyalty to his hard-working underling.  Lampion gamely follows the instructions of the boss, all the while negotiating his own personal difficulties.  In the one episode where we meet Laurence and Avril, they do seem to have some chemistry.  I see that they were paired for a further four episodes, so it would be interesting to see how their relationship develops.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Les Petits Meurtres D'Agatha Christie from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Les Petits Meurtres D'Agatha Christie: Four Gherkins, for being an entertaining look at the French take on the Queen of Crime

Monday, February 24, 2014

Promotions on the fast and slow track

DSC James Langton and DI Anna Travis are back again investigating a murder in Above Suspicion 3.  Their last case ended on a bad note, with a suspected drug dealer escaping justice.  The higher-ups in the police force were looking for a scapegoat, and they seemed to suspect that DSC Langton was the one at fault.  His expected promotion to Commander has been set aside, and Sam Power (who wasn't even seeking the promotion) was given that position instead.

So when popular young actress Amanda Delany is found stabbed to death, Langton is put in charge of the investigation.  In addition to solving the murder, he also has another objective:  to find out which of his colleagues put the blame for the earlier failed investigation on him.

Amanda Delany seemed to be living a life that many would envy:  she was young, beautiful, successful and admired for her many film roles.  However, her life was anything but happy.  When she was found murdered, the autopsy revealed that she was suffering from anorexia, abused drugs, had numerous scars from self-harming, and that she'd already had a total hysterectomy at the age of 24.  As the team begins investigating her murder, they find no shortage of possible reasons someone might have wanted her dead.

Amanda had a habit of having short-lived affairs with her male (and usually married) co-stars.  Her ex-roommate blamed Amanda for stealing roles and ruining her own acting career.  Amanda was involved in the drug scene, and several of her acquaintances also end up dead in drug-related circumstances.  Finally, Amanda had been in contact with a publisher about writing a tell-all autobiography which would "name names" and make a fortune.  Did someone not want their secret to be revealed?

As Langton works on solving the case, he feels more pressure than usual to get a quick result.  It's been implied that if he solves the case quickly, he might eventually get that promotion to Commander after all.  At the same time, DI Anna Travis has been told she's on the "fast track" for a promotion.  Her own determination to get answers without always following protocol will put her in personal and professional peril.

Above Suspicion was written by Lynda La Plante, most famous for the long-running Prime Suspect series starring Helen Mirren.  This series also stars a woman who is working in a male-dominated police force (although things are vastly improved from Jane Tennyson's day!), yet trying to make her way up through the ranks by determination and hard work.  Anna Travis also has something of a soft spot for her superior, DCS Langton, so it remains to be seen how their personal and professional relationship will develop.

This series takes place over 3 episodes.  The disc also includes many extras, such as interviews with the main cast, guest cast, writer, director and producers.  It's very interesting to get such a thorough behind the scenes look at the production and how many people are involved in it!  At one point it was mentioned that at least 2 more series have been written, so we can look forward to more visits with Langton and Anna!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Above Suspicion 3 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Above Suspicion 3:Four Gherkins, for being a thrilling look at the personal and professional motivations of some driven detectives

Sunday, February 23, 2014

None of this generation will do as they're told

The year is 1831 and the country of Australia is slowly coming into its own after having served as the transportation destination for those in England and Ireland who have ended up on the wrong side of the law.  This is the setting for Under Capricorn, a 2-part series first broadcast in 1983. 

The governor of New South Wales is anxious to welcome his cousin, the young Charles Adare, who arrives eager to quickly make his fortune.  Charles is willing to entertain any idea that might help him to achieve his goal.  He meets wealthy landowner Samson Flusky, who offers him a business proposal.  Flusky already owns a great deal of land -- so much so that the authorities don't want him to purchase more.  They want everyone to have a fair chance to become landowners, since the earlier practice of land grants has ended.  Flusky asks Adare to purchase land for him so that it appears Adare will be the owner.  Of course, Adare will be compensated for his part in the scheme. 

One evening, Flusky invites Charles and many of the leaders of local society to his house for a dinner party.  Once they arrive, it soon becomes apparent that only the men have accepted the invitation -- none of their wives wanted to attend.  The reason is soon revealed:  Flusky's wife, Hattie, is an out of control alcoholic.  She's beautiful but unbalanced, and during the dinner, she makes a disheveled appearance before the horrified guests.  She sits next to the kindly Charles, and it soon emerges that they are from the same town in Ireland, and that she was a good friend of one of his sisters.  Hattie, or "Lady Harriet" as her husband insists she be called, was the daughter of an earl who ran away with Flusky, the groom.  When he was transported for the murder of her brother, she followed him to Australia.  Now she spends her days in a drunken haze.  She's aided in her addiction by the scheming maid Milly, who supplies her mistress with alcohol and gives her "doses" of her "medicine."

Charles eventually grows so close to the Fluskys that he moves in with them.  He begins to spend more time with Harriet, and determines to help her break her addiction to alcohol.  He insists that she take over the running of her own household.  When Milly balks at having some of her power taken away, she is dismissed.  Hattie regains her beauty and self-control, and rejoins society.  Unfortunately, Flusky has begun to suspect that there is something other than friendship going on between his wife and young Charles.

An aboriginal man living near Flusky's house reports that he's discovered gold at a remote riverside.  Charles becomes obsessed with the idea of a huge gold find, and asks Flusky to advance him the money to go prospecting, with the promise to give Flusky a cut of the proceeds.  Hattie is adamantly opposed to the idea, believing the aboriginal man to be untrustworthy.  She believes Charles will die in the desert. Flusky, seeing an opportunity to break up his wife's relationship, agrees to finance the venture. Before Charles leaves, he meets a young girl at a dance and flirts with her.

Part two begins 5 months after Charles has left on his gold finding expedition.  There has been no word from him since he left, and Hattie has become convinced that he's dead.  She has fallen back into alcoholism, so when the scheming Milly writes a letter asking to come back to her job, Flusky re-hires her.  Another servant, Winter, was given a letter from Charles before he left, and he passes this along to Harriet.  In the letter, he asks her to look after Susan, the girl from the dance.  Seeing a way to have some connection with Charles, Harriet goes to town and finds Sue at her father's barbershop.  Sue agrees to come back to Hattie's house for a visit.  Milly doesn't want any meddling in her scheme to destroy Hattie so that she, Milly, can marry Flusky herself.  Sue, however, isn't one to overlook injustice or do as she's told.  She and Milly clash, but she has an improving influence on Hattie, who once again starts to take an interest in the outside world.

They eventually find out that Flusky has received a letter saying Charles is alive, and making his way back.  Sue and Hattie are both angry at others for keeping secrets from them.  When Charles returns, the secrets that everyone has been keeping are brought out into the open.  It turns out that both Hattie and Flusky have believed things about each other that weren't true.  Neither was able to confront the other, and this lack of openness nearly destroyed them.

Like Downton Abbey, a scheming servant is actually running the show, using her own motives to justify destructive behavior -- all the while claiming to be a "good Christian woman."  It was enjoyable to see the interactions between the newly transported, who mostly worked as servants, and those who had been there a while and had been able to build up respectable lives.  One odd thing was that when scenes of bustling town life were shown, there were always a few aboriginal people leaning against a post or sitting on the steps.  No one paid any attention to them, but their inactivity was in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of everyone else around them.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Under Capricorn from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Under Capricorn Four Gherkins, for being a revealing look at a star-crossed relationship in the early days of the outback