Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Say your way to a happy day

Most of us have things we want to change about ourselves or our daily lives, but we seem unable to break old habits.  How many people do you hear say they want to lose weight, get a better job or get out of debt, yet they do nothing to achieve these goals?  The book Habit Changers takes a look at some of the most common bad habits people need to overcome, and gives a short mantra or slogan that will be useful in achieving that result.

The author, M.J. Ryan, has worked for many years as an "executive coach."  Apparently this involves working with people in the business world with problems they need to overcome to be successful.  Because of her extensive experience, she is able to give concrete examples of how some problems manifest themselves in the real world, and how she is able to advise her clients to resolve them.  The idea of using "mantras" to overcome bad habits came about when Ryan was reading about Lojong, the Buddhist practice of repeating a slogan until it becomes so ingrained in your mind that you accept the idea without thinking about it.  Because the new ideas are now part of your unconscious thought, you will be able to implement them without thinking.  Ryan estimates it will take 6-9 months of repetition and awareness of your mantra for the permanent change to be made in your brain.  She suggests not only repeating the mantra, but printing it out and putting it where it will be a constant reminder for you.

The book is divided into sections for each category, followed by several sub-categories.  Each sub-category has its own one-page explanation and example, including the relevant mantra.  Some of the categories are Anger, Conflict, Procrastination and Self-Confidence.  Sometimes the manta is the title of the category, such as "Change It, Leave It, or Accept It."

While I enjoyed reading about the situations the author has encountered in working with business clients, I have a hard time believing the claim that after giving some of these people their new mantra, the "transformation was instantaneous and astonishing."  Were that it were that easy!  Still, if someone is truly committed to changing or improving an area of his or her life, being able to reduce the solution to a one-sentence slogan may help to put things into perspective.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Habit Changers from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nobody ever died in the village before you arrived

M.C. Beaton's nosy, prickly and lovable heroine Agatha Raisin has been featured in 27 novels, so it is high time that she made the transition to our TV screens.  Acorn Media is releasing Agatha Raisin: Series One so that we can finally get to see Agatha and the idyllic village of Carsely in the English Cotswolds. Series one includes the 2014 pilot episode, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, as well as 8 additional episodes that were shown on UK TV in 2016. There are also some charming behind-the-scenes featurettes about Carsely, the casting and actors.

We meet Agatha in "The Quiche of Death" when she decides to finally chuck in her successful Public Relations job in London and move to a small town in the Cotswolds.  She had paid a firm of interior designers a fortune to make her home look "homey" so she's pleased with the results.  Now her next order of business is to go out and get involved in her new community.  When she hears there's an annual quiche competition coming up, she thinks that will be just the thing to allow her to get involved in village life.  Unfortunately, Agatha lives on microwave meals and has no idea how to bake a quiche, but that's what high-end London bakeries are for, no?  She shows up with her creation, certain of a win, especially after she invites Andy Cummings-Brown (who will be judging the competition) and his wife out for a pricey meal in the local upscale pub.  Therefore, Agatha is shocked when Ella Cartwright wins yet again.  To make matters worse, Agatha comes home and discovers her new cottage has been burgled.  She calls in local police DC Bill Wong and DCI Wilkes, but they don't seem too optimistic that the thieves can be tracked down.  But dark days weren't finished with Agatha, because the next night, Andy is found dead in his home.  He had been eating Agatha's leftover quiche when he collapsed and died.  The police quickly determined it was murder, and that he had been poisoned by deadly cowbane.  At the inquest, Agatha has to admit in open court that she didn't actually bake the quiche that she entered into the competition.  Poor Aggie!  And she endears herself even less to the locals of Carsely when she steals away the cleaner, Gemma Simpson, from her neighbor.  Cleaners are apparently hard to come by in the Cotswolds, so pinching someone else's is just not done!

But things are not all gloom and doom.  DC Bill Wong has a massive crush on Agatha, which means he's often stopping by with gifts, including a kitten and official police investigation notes.  Agatha begins her investigation into Andy's death to clear her name, but soon finds out that she has a talent for it.  Also, her friend Roy Silver is a frequent visitor from London, usually with his latest unsuitable boyfriend (or "boyf" as it's apparently called these days) in tow.  Even better, a hunky next-door-neighbor, James Lacey has taken up residence.

After managing to solve the quiche murder, Agatha is back for Episode One, the Walkers of Dembley.  In this episode we are introduced to Sir Charles Fraith, owner of a large estate, and boss to the gloomy butler Gustav.  When some local ramblers insist they have a right to walk through Sir Charles' fields, Gustav tries to convince them otherwise (using a gun).  Charles arrives on the scene and tells them they are welcome to walk on his land, just not on the crops.  This doesn't sit well with the outspoken leader of the group, Jess Tartick, who claims an ancient right of way goes right through
the fields.  A few days later, she is hit over the head and murdered while walking in these same fields.  Naturally, Charles is a suspect.  Sarah Bloxby, the vicar's wife, brings Deborah Camden to Agatha and they ask her to investigate the death.  Deborah has her heart set on marrying Charles, so she needs to clear his name (Charles may have other ideas about the marriage, though).  Further complicating Agatha's life, Roy Silver has been dumped by his long-term partner and is drowning his sorrows with wine, Pringles, and a naked yoga teacher -- in Agatha's house.  Even more annoying, James Lacey seems to have taken up with the insufferable Mary Fortune.  Although Jess and most of the ramblers were teachers, Agatha soon discovers a hot-bed of infidelity and scandal among the ramblers.

In Episode Two, Hell's Bells, Agatha again tries to fit in with the local community by getting involved in the local bell-ringer's society.  The bishop is coming for a visit soon, and the bell-ringers need all the practice they can get to be able to play something recognizable.  The head bell-ringer, Amanda Ballard, is spending an awful lot of time with the vicar, much to his wife Sarah's annoyance. When Amanda is found hanging in the church with an apparent suicide note nearby, the police are only too quick to accept the death at face value.  Agatha tries to get James to investigate the death with her, but when he refuses, she presses Gemma (her cleaner) and Roy into service as her assistants.  It turns out Amanda wasn't the wealthy widow she claimed to be, but did her death have something to do with Reverend Bloxby being investigated for irregularities in church finances?

Two sets of village residents are at each other's throats in Episode Three: The Wellspring of Death.  Robina Toynbee owns the land where an ancient spring sits.  She has agreed to allow a company called Ancombe Water to collect the water for sale.  The problem is that the village is small, and the heavy, loud and dangerous trucks thundering through the area are disrupting village life. The parish council is going to vote on whether or not to allow the trucks access to the spring.  The council is evenly divided, with Robert Struthers having the deciding vote.  Both sides are hoping to influence him, but he is found dead at the spring the morning of the meeting.  Due to the negative publicity surrounding Ancombe Water after the death, the company hires Agatha to manage the PR surrounding the product launch.  She's able to convince the head of the company, Guy Fremont, to work closely with her (personally and professionally).  James Lacey doesn't seem to be paying much attention to her domestic arrangements, much to  Agatha's annoyance, because he and Mary Fortune have decided to out-detect Agatha and investigate the murder themselves.  DCI Wilkes, meanwhile, has learned some new investigation techniques from watching "Morse" so there is no shortage of sleuths trying to trap the murderer.

Just because Agatha didn't win the quiche competition doesn't mean she's not willing to compete in other areas.  In Episode Four: The Potted Gardener, Agatha is getting her back yard ready for the upcoming Open Gardens Competition.  Just as well that she's going for something modern and zen, because nearly all the flowers and plants in her competitor's gardens are vandalized a few days before
the competition.  Could it have something to do with the noisy joyriders who have been terrorizing the villagers in the middle of the night?  When one of the gardeners is found "planted" upside down in her own garden, Agatha has many mysteries to solve:  the murder, the vandalism and the joyriding.  It seems like she's on to the killer when she finds out the dead woman's daughter might be in need of money, but could it be more complicated than that?

Carsely has a new handsome vet in Episode Five: The Vicious Vet.  It's a good thing there's nothing really wrong with Agatha's cat Hodge when she takes him in for a visit, because every other female in town is in the waiting room with a healthy pet in need of an urgent exam by the vet.  Paul Bladen, the vet, asks Agatha out to dinner.  She's flattered, but is somewhat taken aback when she calls his house and his "wife" answers.  When Paul makes excuses, she's ready to forgive him, but then he turns up dead at Lord Pendlebury's horse stables.  Paul was going to operate on a horse, when he somehow managed to inject the horse tranquilizer into his heart.  Once again, the police see no reason to investigate this tragic accident, but Agatha sets out to find out who might want the vet dead.  Since James (an ex-army man) has some shared colleagues with Pendlebury, he comes along to give Agatha an introduction and a chance to snoop around the estate.  Agatha and crew do manage to find an important clue, but James is distracted by the prospect of a date with Lord Pendlebury's daughter Cilly and the clue goes missing.  Things go from bad to worse when Agatha discovers that someone has "catnapped" Hodge and demands that she stop investigating if she ever wants to see the kitty again.

Although Sir Charles Fraith certainly doesn't need the money, he's started a lucrative sideline in renting out his estate for weddings in Episode Six: The Day the Floods Came.  Couples are lining up to hold ceremonies there until new bride Kylie Leeson is found floating the the river the day after her
wedding.  Even though business is suffering, Charles doesn't want Agatha to investigate.  This demand is easy to meet, since none of Kylie's friends are eager to speak to Agatha.  That is until she comes up with the idea of having Roy pose as the producer of a new reality program about the village youth that they are currently scouting talent for.  Agatha soon finds out that Kylie was having affairs and blackmailing people left and right, which certainly doesn't help to narrow down the list of suspects.

In the Witch of Wyckhadden, Episode Seven, Agatha makes a somewhat understandable error. She's booked into a spooky castle for a Spa Retreat, only it turns out that SPA stands for Special Paranormal Activity.  The reason she needs to get away for a while is that she's had an unfortunate
hair disaster, and needs to hide out until she can rectify the situation. One of the other guests at the hotel tells Agatha about Francie Juddle, the local witch, who, in addition to doing palm and Tarot readings also has a booming sideline in potions of all sorts.  Agatha visits Francie for a hair tonic and after returning to her room, becomes alarmed at the caustic nature of the product.  She storms back to Francie's caravan to demand a refund, only to find her dead.  When Roy, Gemma and James read about the murder in the newspaper, they all come to the castle to help Agatha find the murderer.  When there is another death during a seance in a locked room, it turns out the paranormal might be involved after all.

Episode Eight: The Murderous Marriage, finds Agatha about to go through with a wedding.  She's finally managed to snare James Lacey and has sold her cottage in preparation of moving in with him.  On the day of the wedding, as she and James are exchanging their vows, everyone is shocked when Agatha's husband, Jimmy Raisin, turns up and says she's already married.  It turns out Agatha had never bothered to get a divorce from Jimmy when he disappeared soon after their marriage many years earlier.  It seems Jimmy has been living rough, and he's only too happy to agree to a divorce -- but it will cost Agatha.  When she argues with him, they are spotted by a villager.  Jimmy is discovered strangled to death soon after that.  Agatha would seem to have the strongest motive for murder, so she is quickly arrested.  James also has a motive, so he soon joins Agatha in the cells.  After they are bailed, their investigations determine that Jimmy had been sent to rehab by a charity for the homeless run by a woman named Fiona Gore-Appleton.  When they try to track her down, they find she and the charity seem to be bogus.  But some new female villagers have
moved into Carsely lately, so could there be a connection?

I have been a big fan of the Agatha Raisin books, so I was thrilled to see all the characters come to life.  Ashley Jensen is a bit more glamorous than I had pictured Agatha, but her ability to get herself into embarrassing situations and her hopeless love life are completely in keeping with the Agatha we know and love.  A few other changes have been made from the books, such as Rev. and Mrs. Bloxby being a young couple, and the cleaner being a single mother, but other than that, the setting and other characters will be familiar to fans of the books.  I really liked the comedic touches, such as the hopelessly inept DCI Wickes.  We can only hope we haven't seen the last of Agatha and her friends on the small screen!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Agatha Raisin: Series One from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Round and around and around we go

A traumatic experience takes center stage in the new novel from Australian author Liane Moriarty in Truly Madly Guilty, but we don't find out what actually happened until far into the book.  Instead, events jump between the present, where we see the effects of whatever-it-was sending ripples out through the lives of various characters, and the past, where we see how the "Day of the Barbecue" unfolded.

Clementine and Erika have been friends since childhood.  Erika came from a single-parent home where her mother was a hoarder.  As a result, Erika was neglected, withdrawn and isolated.  Clementine's mother, a social worker always on the lookout for someone to rescue, demands that Clementine befriend Erika.  She reluctantly does so, and has continued to do so ever since, even though she does not particularly like Erika and feels burdened and frustrated at always having to look after her.  Clementine is married, has two young daughters, and is a professional cellist who always has to audition for jobs and has a big one coming up.  Erika is also married, but childless and has a high-paying and respectable job as an accountant.

Erika and her husband Oliver have invited Clementine's family over for dinner.  As Erika leaves her house on the way to the store, her neighbor Vid stops to chat.  Vid is a very successful and slightly shady businessman who lives in a huge, ostentatious mansion with his new trophy wife Tiffany and their daughter Dakota.  When Vid hears Erika is inviting people over for dinner, he insists that everyone come over to his house for a barbecue instead.  He loves socializing and cooking, and his dominant personality means that Erika soon gives in without consulting any of the others.

Clearly, from the way the book is structured, something catastrophic happens at the barbecue.  Based on the fact that the book opens with Clementine, several months after the barbecue, is giving "yet another" speech to a community group about her experiences, you get the impression that whatever the terrible event was, her children were involved.

While it is very suspenseful to try to work out what in the world happened at the barbecue from the sparse clues we're given, the rest of the story is very tedious.  It's over and over about how Clementine is worried about the upcoming audition, how Erika is such a pain in her life, how poor Erika is so emotionally stunted and has such a terrible life (although she's happily married and has no financial worries), etc.  The book just seems on a boring, never-ending loop going over and over the same ground without the story really advancing. I'm sure it's an attempt to draw out the narrative and heighten the suspense before "the big reveal" but it makes for very dull reading.  I read some of Liane Moriarty's earlier books and really liked them, but sadly, this one is mostly filler and very little of substance.

Final Verdict for Truly Madly Guilty Two Gherkins, for being a tedious look at first world problems

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Life's too short to drink bad coffee

DS Eve Winter is juggling many roles in the Australian police drama Winter.  Not only is she investigating numerous murders, but she has a very complicated relationship with her sister.  Add to all this a busy romantic life, and some unwelcome attention from “Professional Standards” (the Australian equivalent to “Internal Affairs”) and you’d be forgiven for thinking she would be somewhat stressed out.  However, Eve remains driven, focused, and impeccably dressed throughout her many trials!  Now available from Acorn Media, Winter: The Complete Series is 7 episodes of gritty Australian drama set in and around a gorgeous Sydney backdrop.

The series Winter begins with a pilot episode that finds Eve (played by Rebecca Gibney) no longer actively working with the police, but instead working on policy issues from an office.  That is until her old lover and partner Lachlan McKenzie asks for her help in investigating the disappearance of a young woman, Becky Ryan.  While searching for her, the graves of 5 missing women are found in a field.  Becky isn’t among them, but the fact the women are all found at the same location points to a serial killer.  Eve is drawn back into the world of investigation and there is no shortage of suspects.  Becky’s parents own a bakery, and it seems as if Becky was quite friendly with Damien, who worked there.  Several people
reported seeing Becky talking to Damien the night she disappeared.   Then there is the usual assortment of odd people and troublemakers who populate the small town of Mingara.  It turns out that another girl went missing at the same time as Becky, so could it be possible that several killers are at work?

After solving the mystery in the Pilot episodes, Eve returns in a 6-part mystery that begins with the death of Karly Johansson.  Karly is a young mother who lives with her husband and parents in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean in Sydney.  The story begins with Karly being stabbed and chased by a mysterious attacker outside her home.  She is eventually forced over the cliff and falls to her death.  On the same evening, a young woman is gravely injured in a hit and run accident in the city.  Both women had the same unusual tattoo on their wrists.  Is it a coincidence that someone apparently tried to kill them both on the same evening?

Eve is back investigating the crimes, and this time she has additional complications because two other cases are possibly connected to the murder.  Lachlan McKenzie is back, and he’s convinced that there is a connection between the murdered woman and the death 8 years previously of Janet Pagent.  Janet was the counsellor at a high school who was murdered.  Lachlan has always believed her husband, Paul (a groundskeeper at the school) was to blame, but he never had enough evidence to arrest him.  He’s more than happy to try to connect Paul Pagent to these new crimes.  At the same time, the federal police are involved in the case of the young woman injured in the car accident.  Her name is Indiana Hope, and she is the major witness in an upcoming case involving human trafficking.  The main federal agent, Jake Harris, is only interested in making sure Indiana shows up to testify in his case.  He’s not concerned with solving the murder of Karly or even allowing Eve or her team to question Indiana.  It turns out that Indiana and Karly were foster sisters 8 years ago, so Eve believes there must be a connection in the crimes.  Once an attempt is made on Indiana’s life by a mysterious man in the hospital, Indiana goes on the run and there are frantic attempts to locate her.  Things become even more complicated when it is discovered that Indiana is actually the daughter of the politically powerful DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions), which brings unwanted publicity to the case.

On the personal side, Eve is unwilling to rekindle her relationship with Lachlan, but as she’s working alongside Jake, they become romantically involved.  At the same time, Eve’s psychologist sister Melanie doesn’t seem too concerned when her 14 year old son is caught with drugs.  Eve uses an inside tip to keep her nephew from being caught up in a drug sting, something that comes back to haunt her when the Professional Standards department begins investigating Lachlan for his handling of the Paul Pagent case. As Eve doggedly tries to track down Indiana and solve the murder of Karly, she becomes convinced that there is a “mole” operating inside the police department.  On one occasion when the police are on the trail of Indiana, the mysterious assassin shows up at the same time.  Someone must be feeding information from the police to the criminals.  So who can Eve trust?

I enjoyed the lovely views of Sydney and the glimpses of the ocean that popped up in the background frequently.  The Johansson home, with its wall of windows overlooking the ocean, was a breathtaking setting for many scenes.  It was never really explained how Eve came back to full-time policing after the events of the Pilot episodes, but we can only assume the thrill of the chase was more exciting that all those meetings and paperwork she was dealing with in the policy department!  I got a bit tired of everyone chasing after the sullen, uncooperative Indiana, but otherwise, it was fun seeing Eve and company trying to unravel the mystery of who would want to kill a suburban mother of two.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Winter: The Complete Series from Acorn Media in exchange for this review


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Finding out what you didn't know you didn't know

The other day I was watching an episode of Judge Judy when one of the litigants talked about someone harassing her using an Internet "meme."  She pronounced it Me Me, instead of how I'd always thought it was pronounced, MEEM.  So I immediately started worrying -- was I the one mispronouncing it?  Granted, it doesn't come up in conversation often, but had I been throwing around this word incorrectly all this time?  Thankfully, a quick double-check online verified that I was the correct one (for once).  If you've ever been in the situation of worrying about the correct way to pronounce words, then the book You're Saying it Wrong by siblings Ross and Kathryn Petras is a book you'll want to keep handy.

The book begins with a short history of "shibboleth words."  These are words which are used in one language or culture, but might be difficult for an outsider to pronounce.  It has been a way of weeding out invaders and imposters throughout history.  The book takes a look a large group of words (including not only words in everyday usage, but also names, and quite frequently culinary terms) and looks at their origins, definitions and even helpfully lists some common mispronunciations so that you can see if you fall into one of those categories.  The authors have based their conclusions by consulting many dictionaries, journal articles and Internet sources, but for the purposes of this book, they are favoring American pronunciation.

Each entry begins with the word, a short definition, and a pronunciation guide that is mercifully easy to follow.  No weird upside-down "e" characters or other strange letters or accent marks.  The pronunciation of mischievous, for instance, is written out as Mis-chuh-vus.  There's even a slightly off-color joke told about how to remember to pronounce the Vietnamese dish "pho" which will brand it forever in my memory!

Worryingly, I came across several examples where my own mispronunciations were pointed out, such as mascarpone (look how far along the word you go before you hit an 'r') and ophthalmologist (the oph is pronounced like "off" -- who knew?).  All in all, while it's a subjective group of words, I'm sure nearly everyone will find words that they have been pronouncing wrong or have never learned how to pronounce in the first place!  If you're interested in word origins or language, you will enjoy paging through this useful little book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of You're Saying it Wrong from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

It must be something in the water

The water must be terribly tainted in Midsomer County.  How else to explain the incredibly high murder rate in such a beautiful and seemingly peaceful area?  At least the many murders keep DCI Tom Barnaby and his side-kicks DS Charlie Nelson and Dr. Kam Karimore busy.  Series 18 has just been released and is available from Acorn Media (as is all of the Midsomer Murders back catalog!).

Series 18 contains 6 brand new mysteries, as well as bonus material containing behind-the-scenes featurettes.  This series also introduces Dr. Kam Karimore as the hardworking pathologist who is called out to murder scenes and expected to instantly determine time and manner of death.  She remains remarkably cheerful and able to offer up extremely well-educated guesses to all the questions, so she quickly becomes an invaluable member of the team.  She and DS Nelson are both extremely competitive (in everything from pub quizzes to tennis to vying to dog-sit Sykes), so they seem to have met their match in each other.

The new series starts out with Habeas Corpus.  An elderly man dies at
home in bed, surrounded by his family and the local doctor. The family retires downstairs to wait for the undertaker, but when he arrives and goes upstairs to retrieve the body, everyone is shocked to discover the bed is empty and the recently deceased Gregory Lancaster is nowhere to be found.  This is perplexing enough, but not long afterward, a body is stolen from a grave in the local churchyard.  This missing body also turns out to have a connection to the Lancaster family, as it belongs to the former nanny of the children (now grown).  This case has aspects that reach far beyond Midsomer County, as Felix Lancaster (son and heir of the missing man) spends most of his time on expeditions to Antarctica.  It turns out he has already pledged to sell the estate to his childhood friend Sonny Desai.  Sonny, meanwhile, has made his fortune in somewhat shady mining deals in Mozambique.  Felix's sister Rose, her finance Craig, and mother Hermione, are all somewhat shell-shocked at the thought of losing their home.  Still, the living arrangements are of little concern to Barnaby and Nelson as they try to figure out where the missing bodies are, and who on earth would have taken them.  On the home front, things are rather noisy at Casa Barnaby, as baby Betty's beloved Pink Ted continually goes missing, only to turn up in the oddest places.

A connection even farther away than Antarctica occurs in The Incident at Copper Hill, where people are gathering at a place known for UFO sightings.  Felicity Ford, a forest ranger, is found dead in very unusual circumstances.  Her vehicle is found in the middle of the road, running, with the door open and one of her boots nearby.   Eventually she is found encased in a strange bag and covered in an unusual goo.  Kam quickly determines that the cause of death was drowning in this goo, which was apparently in liquid form at high temperatures, but solidifies as it cools.  Aside from the UFOlogists who are in town hoping to glimpse some extraterrestrials, a MOD base is nearby and figures in the investigation.  The commander of the base, Group Captain Ford (father of the dead woman) is not keen to have any civilians on his base, even if they are investigating a murder.  So were alien beings really responsible for the death, or is the truth closer to Earth?

The world of competitive cycling gets nasty in Breaking the Chain.  Greg Eddon wins the current
stage of the Midsomer Cycling Grand Prix, even though he had been instructed to let another teammate win.  As Greg is winding down after the race, someone interferes with his equipment and murders him.  All sorts of possible motives emerge, including professional jealousy, team rivalries and illegal doping -- which have people scurrying to cover their tracks, even if certain individual mis-deeds didn't lead to the murder.

Episode Four, Dying Art, concerns a wealthy man who has upset most of his neighbors by blocking off the area woodlands in order to open a
private sculpture garden.  When the man, Brandon Monkford, is discovered murdered and posed on one of the sculptures, Barnaby and Nelson must consider the fact that someone in the village really wanted their woodland back.  Of course, there were also plenty of artists who wanted the fame and recognition of having their artwork displayed in the new attraction, and when that didn't happen, plenty of rejected artists had a motive for murder as well.  Brandon's family is astonished to learn that he cut them all out of his will and left his sizable estate to an employee, so could money be the motive?

Saints and Sinners concerns an archaeological dig taking place in the
county.  The renowned leader of the dig, Zoe Dyer, is jubilant to discover a skeleton that she believes to be the remains of Cecily Milson, a 16th century Protestant martyr who was tortured and put to death for her beliefs.  This presents a problem in the small village of Midsomer Cecily, because they believe they already have her remains on display in the church, where they are enshrined as religious relics.  In fact, the annual Cecily Day celebrations are coming up, and it's very inconvenient to have two sets of remains for one individual.  When Zoe is discovered murdered at the dig site, Barnaby discovers just how ruthless the fields of history and archaeology truly are.

The final episode of the series, Harvest of Souls, takes place during the Whitcombe Mallet Harvest Fayre.  The village green is taken over for the annual "fayre" but it looks as if the celebration's days may be numbered.  The local "squire," Harry Wyham, wants to sell the land and stop the annual tradition.  This especially doesn't sit well with Butch Nevins, owner of the Wall of Death motorcycle attraction at the fair.  When Harry is discovered apparently trampled to death by a horse in his own Wyham Equestrian Center, it quickly becomes apparent that it wasn't an accident.  As well as angering the villagers in general and Butch in particular, Harry was also in a custody battle over his young daughter Amy.  Her mother, Jessica, has had some problems, but now wants more time with her daughter.  So the finger of suspicion points in many directions!  At the same time, the Barnaby family is hoping to go on vacation to France, but Sykes the dog is not happy about the idea.

It was wonderful to go back to Midsomer again, and to try to work out the tangled lives of its inhabitants.  Everyone seems to have plenty to hide, even if it isn't a murderous secret.  There seems
to be a lot of "us vs. them" conflicts in these stories -- outsiders (UFO chasers & nighthawks/
metal detectorists) vs. villagers, as well as people trying to do new things and villagers getting upset that it was disrupting the natural surroundings (the bike race and sculpture park).  I liked the lighthearted competition between Nelson and Kam, and I'm sure they'll find plenty of new areas to challenge each other in when we see them again next year! It was also nice to see familiar faces popping up including Allison Stedman, Helen Baxendale and Julia Sawalha as well as Sian Webber.  I didn't recognize Sian Webber's name, but she was instantly familiar as "Ritchie," the long suffering legal fixer for the Mitchell clan on Eastenders.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Midsomer Murders Series 18 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Can a wicked boy be rehabilitated?

What would cause a young boy to murder his mother and can there be any redemption for him after committing such an act?  Those questions are central to The Wicked Boy, a novel which covers a true crime that happened in Victorian London in 1895.

Thirteen year old Robert Coombes and his eleven year old brother Nattie were living in London with their parents as the 19th century was drawing to a close.  Their father, also named Robert, worked on merchant ships that made transatlantic crossings.  He was frequently away from home for long periods, leaving the boys in the care of their mother Emily.  During one of their father's job-related absences, friends and family members began to notice that they hadn't seen Emily for a while.  The boys said they had gotten word that a rich relative had died, and that their mother had gone to Liverpool to check on their inheritance.  In the meantime, John Fox, a somewhat simple man who worked at the same shipping company as their father, was staying with them.

The boys were seen spending lots of money (attending cricket matches, among other things), having Mr. Fox pawn belongings, and even sending letters to the shipping company attempting to get an advance on their father's wages while their mother remained absent.  Eventually, relatives insisted on entering the house and the body of Emily Coombes was discovered upstairs in bed.  She had been stabbed repeatedly.

The boys and John Fox were quickly arrested as the police attempted to sort out who was responsible for the crime.  As the investigation continued, it emerged that Robert was the one who wielded the knife against his mother.  What could have caused him to behave in such a way?  The press was quick to blame his love of "penny dreadfuls," cheap books that featured adventurous heroes and exotic locations.  Because of his young age and somewhat more enlightened times (compared to how justice had been meted out in earlier times in England), the boy wasn't hanged.  The rest of the book deals with his punishment for the crime and the events that happened later in his life.

The most startling aspect of the book to me was a quote from an article in the newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette, advocating the practice of killing morally defective children at birth (were we only able to detect such a thing!).  The quote reads, "It would be well if we could choke such moral abortions at birth, as we now choke physical ones."

Beg pardon?

That would seem to imply that it was entirely legal in Victorian England to euthanize babies with physical defects at birth.  That's the first I've ever heard of this practice, and the author didn't elaborate on it at all.  A footnote explaining the historical context would have been appreciated.

I enjoyed reading about how the young boy was treated in the press and legal system of the day.  It was really interesting also to read about how the author was able to tease out the details of Robert's later life and the methods she employed to do so.

Final Verdict for The Wicked Boy Four Gherkins, for being a well-researched account into the aftermath of a shocking crime