Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Full of old, exhaused-looking places


Yuki has travelled from Japan to visit Bronte Country on a special mission.  She's a "psychic detective" who's trying to see if she can find answers regarding her late mother in Yuki Chan in Bronte Country. We learn that Yuki's mother has died, but not many details about what happened.  Yuki is a 20-something woman who has no particular affinity for the Bronte sisters, but she does have a smattering of photos that her mother took while on a visit to northern England a decade before.  Luckily, she has an older sister, Kumiko who lives in London, so she has a base from which to begin her journey.

Yuki starts out on an organized bus tour to Haworth.  Most of the other people on the bus are elderly Japanese women who are reverently interested in all things Bronte.  Yuki really is just using the bus tour as a way to get her to the correct area to investigate her mother's photos.  After a tour of the house where the Bronte sisters lived, Yuki hides until the bus departs.  She then sets about finding the hotel where her mother stayed on her visit long ago.  It turns out to now be a B&B so Yuki checks in and attempts to see if she can figure out which room her mother occupied.

Once that's done, she takes the photos she has and attempts to recreate the exact pose or angle that her mother saw when the photo was taken.  She's hoping that by doing this, she'll have some psychic connection to her mother and what she was doing when she was there.  While sneaking back into the parsonage where the Brontes lived one night (the better to re-create the situation in the photo without prying eyes), Yuki notices that her movements are being observed by a strange girl.  This girl watches Yuki silently, and seems to turn up wherever she is. Most strangely of all, while Yuki is attempting to find a particular body of water from one of the photographs, she discovers the girl is also out there in the wilderness.  Eventually, she finds that the girl, Denny, has her brother's motorbike (and a gun) and is familiar enough with the local area to be able to take Yuki around to the remaining spots from her photos.  Denny becomes a sidekick as Yuki continues to try to discover the secrets behind her mother's photos.

I found the story of Yuki to be rather odd.  There were strange asides about how she would reopen and re-purpose the old Post Office Tower in London, her experiments with snow, how she fainted on two occasions as a child, intense contemplation of a -Beatle-mania photo from the 1960s, etc. that seem to have nothing to do with the story.  Yuki also visits the "Institute of Psychic Studies" in London, where she believes her mother visited long ago, only to find out she needs an appointment to view their collection of photos.  Since she's already there, she spends a great deal of time poking around aimlessly in the library. There is also an incident with a dog bite that starts out on her thigh, but mysteriously is later on her "ass."  (?)  Overall, the story is about a young woman's attempts to come to terms with the death of her mother -- although going half-way around the world and re-creating old photos that had nothing to do with the death would seem to be an odd way to go about it.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Yuki Chan in Bronte Country from Faber & Faber in exchange for this review

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Disappearing act

Mark Douglas is having a bad day.  He's trying to get some photos of whales that might be getting ready to beach themselves but he's unable to get a good shot.  Mark is a freelance photographer who's hoping to sell his photos to the Edinburgh Evening Standard.  Then his phone rings and he's informed his wife hasn't picked up their son Nathan from school.  Assuming that Lauren has been delayed somewhere along the way, Mark picks up Nathan and begins trying to track Lauren down.  So begins Gone Again, a novel about a man's search for his missing wife by author Doug Johnstone.

At first, the police are reluctant to believe that there is anything to investigate. Lauren is an adult, and if she needs a few days on her own, there's nothing criminal in that.  Mark begins to look more interesting to them after a few days when Lauren still hasn't returned, and it turns out that Mark has a history of violence -- he's had a restraining order taken out against him by none other than Lauren's mother.

At the same time, Lauren herself has a bit of history.  Soon after Nathan was born 6 years ago, she disappeared for 10 days while suffering from terrible post-natal depression.  She seems to have recovered and settled into motherhood and her job at a local estate agency, but recently she's found out that she's expecting another baby.  Has the thought of another round of depression caused her to take off again?

Since the police aren't too keen to get involved, Mark starts his own investigation.  He begins at Lauren's office, where her boss Gavin Taylor assures him that Lauren seemed fine the day she disappeared, even though she took a half day off work.  Mark has an uneasy feeling about Gavin and thinks he knows more about what happened to Lauren than he's letting on.  When someone breaks in to his home and steals Lauren's laptop, Mark really begins to wonder if she was involved in something she shouldn't have been.

I enjoyed reading about Mark's growing desperation as he attempts to track down Lauren while trying to keep things as normal as possible for their son Nathan.  His anger at the police eventually causes him to team up with Lauren's mother in an effort to locate the missing woman, something he never expected that he would do.  The story builds to a very exciting conclusion as Mark finally finds out what caused Lauren to disappear, and why some people are willing to go to extreme lengths to keep him from knowing the truth.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Gone Again from Faber & Faber in exchange for this review

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Britt-Marie makes a statment

When we first meet Britt-Marie, she can be a little hard to like.  She comes across as rather uptight and prim, and throws out criticisms disguised as compliments.  Still, she has her reasons for all her personality quirks, which we find out in Britt-Marie Was Here, the latest book from the Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman.

Britt-Marie has recently suffered a great upheaval in her previously well-ordered (if uneventful) life.  Her husband Kent suffered a heart attack and Britt-Marie found out about it when his mistress called to tell her.  Britt-Marie had often suspected something was going on, due to Kent's frequent perfume-scented shirts being discarded on the floor, but she refused to think about it.  Once it's been confirmed, however, she leaves immediately.

Prior to being slapped across the face by reality, Britt-Marie was a stay-at-home wife, looking after Kent and his two children from a previous marriage.  The kids are grown now so Britt-Marie fills her days with cleaning (she has an fanatical devotion to baking soda and a window cleaner called Faxin).  Now she has to consider her options, so she stops in at the local unemployment office.  The counselor she meets there is not overly optimistic about Britt-Marie's employment options.  She has no formal training and hasn't worked since she did a short stint as a waitress before her marriage.  Still, Britt-Marie is not one to take no for an answer, so she makes such a nuisance of herself that she's finally offered a job in Borg.

Borg is a town that has definitely seen better days.  The main employer has closed and everyone who can leave has.  Nearly everyone else has a "For Sale" sign in their yards.  The town council (or rather, the council in the larger town over which has say over the affairs of Borg) has closed the soccer field and is in the process of closing the recreation center.  Britt-Marie is offered the job of being caretaker of the center until it's permanently closed -- expected to be in a few months at most.

Britt-Marie has no other option, so she heads off to Borg.  She soon discovers that the one business in town is operating as a cafe, store, car repair center, and anything else the town needs. It's run by a woman in a wheelchair who's only ever referred to as Somebody.  Somebody is a blunt, no-nonsense sort of person, but she's also friendly to Britt-Marie and fills her in on the goings on in town.  Britt-Marie sets about doing what she does best -- cleaning the recreation center.  She soon notices that all the children in town are obsessed with soccer, a game Britt-Marie knows nothing about.  Still, she washes the uniforms of the "team" and allows the children to watch matches on the TV in the recreation center.

At first she sleeps in the recreation center, but she soon moves in with a seemingly blind woman named Bank (who can miraculously "accidentally" hit people with her stick).  Bank's late father was a legendary soccer coach, but she claims to not be interested in the sport. That is until the children need a registered coach to participate in the local soccer league. Britt-Marie is roped in to be the coach on paper, but as Bank observes Britt-Marie's attempts at training the team, she gradually begins to take over more of the duties.

Britt-Marie also begins something of a flirtation with Sven, the local policeman.  Just as Britt-Marie seems to be settling in to life in Borg, Kent makes a reappearance.  He's recovered from his heart attack and seemingly can't live without Britt-Marie (although he has failed to notice or appreciate her for most of their marriage).  As he attempts to convince Britt-Marie to return home, she is faced with making a decision about her future: return to the life she's always known, continue her new life in Borg, or set out on a completely new adventure.

I enjoyed reading about the prickly Britt-Marie, who never relaxed her grip on her handbag or stopped cleaning for very long.  I didn't like her odd manner of speech, which included putting "Ha" (or "Ha?" if she was asking a question) before every sentence.  Also, Somebody had a strange way of speaking, and I never ascertained if that was just to add to her strangeness, or to imply that perhaps she was also a "foreigner" in Borg?  I also wish the book had ended on a different note, but that's just my own preference for tidy endings.  Overall, this is an enjoyable look at a woman who finally explores new possibilities after 63 years.

Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Reader's Edition of Britt-Marie Was Here from the publisher in exchange for this review

Monday, April 4, 2016

I'm not blaming God, although I think He started it

Lance Hahn is a man who understands fear.  His book How to Live in Fear discusses his own personal struggles with fear and the resulting panic attacks that have plagued him for his entire life.  He works as a pastor, and in 2014 hit rock bottom with panic, anxiety and fear to the extent that he had to take a leave from his job.

After suffering so long himself, Hahn is in a position to be able to analyze and discuss the causes and treatments of fear.  He lists three main parts of fear:  root cause, core catalysts and situational triggers. Since the root cause of irrational fear may be a genetic disposition toward the condition, Hahn urges exceedingly fearful people not to be ashamed of their illness.  Some of the catalysts that he outlines which might cause fear include childhood trauma, distorted world view, having a "high-functioning mind" (and I'd like to meet someone who doesn't feel their mind is high-functioning!) and being overly sensitive to threats that don't exist. He advises people to try to explore what causes their fears to see if there is a specific time of day or group of people that cause you to be anxious, and attempt to take measures to avoid or anticipate these triggers.

The statistics Hahn quotes about the effect of fear on people in the US speak for themselves: nearly 40 million Americans suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder, but most suffer symptoms for over 10 years before seeking help.  He gives some possible reactions to stressful situations, and how they can be managed.  In the management category, he takes a look at the pros and cons of using medication to manage symptoms.  There are also internal (distraction, journaling, counseling, etc.) and external (getting plenty of exercise, rest, pursuing hobbies, etc.) that can be employed to help ward off or minimize symptoms. As a minister, he also devotes a good deal of the book to Biblical examples and remedies which he relies on when fear takes hold.

I enjoyed reading about the author's attempts to analyze and remedy his struggles with fear and anxiety.  It seems as if his life-long struggle will continue, but at least he's taking ownership of his disorder and looking at all possible remedies for living with this sometimes crippling affliction

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of How to Live in Fear from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Domino effect

In How It All Began, one act has repercussions across the lives of many characters.  Charlotte Rainsford, elderly but still active, is mugged one day, she loses more than her bag.  Injuries mean that she needs time to recuperate before she can move back to her own home, where the lives alone.  She moves in with her daughter Rose and son-in-law Gerry.  She really hates the loss of independence, but decides to make the best of it.

Rose works for Lord Henry Peters as a sort of secretary/personal assistant.  Henry is a retired academic who potters around his house and always seems to have some sort of project on the go.  He thinks about writing his memoirs, but has papers, books, files and notes scattered everywhere, so he never actually gets started.

When Rose's mother has a doctor's appointment on the day Henry is scheduled to deliver a lecture, his niece Marion is roped in to go with him instead.  This upset to his routine causes a great deal of bother, with notes left behind and an embarrassing lack of polish when delivering the lecture.  Marion has her own problems.  She's a self-employed interior designer who has seen much of her work dry up with the downturn in the economy.  She's been having an affair with a married man, Jeremy, who works in the slightly related field of reclamation -- going to properties that are being sold or torn down and rescuing anything that he might be able to sell on.  Because she has to accompany Uncle Henry to his lecture, she sends a text to Jeremy telling him she won't be able to keep their date that evening. Unfortunately, Jeremy's wife, the slightly unstable and hysterical Stella, sees the text and promptly throws Jeremy out of the family home.  Luckily, Jeremy has a small flat that he uses when he's "working" (or entertaining his latest mistress), so he's not totally homeless.  Still, he's panic-stricken at the thought of a divorce and the subsequent upheaval to his life and finances.  While at the dinner which follows Uncle Henry's disastrous lecture, Marion thinks her professional prayers have been answered when she meets a banker who wants her to work with him on his property-flipping project.  She gets started immediately, buying materials and hiring workers, but when she needs money to pay for everything, she discovers that the banker is suddenly MIA . . .

Since Charlotte is basically house-bound at Rose's house, she's had to give up going to the local literacy center where she teaches English to new immigrants.  As a retired teacher, this is work she both enjoys and excels at.  When she calls to say she won't be able to come in for a while, it's suggested that she might tutor a student one-on-one in Rose's house.  She agrees, and soon Anton, an accountant from Poland currently working in the construction trade, shows up for regular lessons.  He's very motivated to improve his English so he can apply for an office job.  Although Rose is out most of the time when he arrives for his lessons, soon their paths cross and she agrees to go with him to pick out some gifts of clothing for his mother back in Poland.  They discover many mutual interests, and soon Rose begins to wonder if her comfortable, but unexciting, life with Gerry might be exchanged for something else.

So the original mugging of Charlotte leads to upheavals in the lives of many people.  Whether these events will have long lasting consequences or not is the question.  It's quite plausible to see how one event can have ripple effects across the lives of so many characters.

Final Verdict for How It All Began:  Four Gherkins, for being a lively look at the interconnectedness of seemingly random events


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A barang guarded by nagas

Cambodia is the setting for Hunters in the Dark, a book about aimless Westerners who travel there to float along with no plans other than to live cheaply and escape from unsatisfying lives "back home."  The book mainly concerns Robert, an Englishman, and Simon, and American, and how their lives intersect with violent and unexpected consequences.

The book is divided into four sections, each more or less told from the viewpoint of a different character (although all of the characters become intertwined).  Karma, the first section, concerns Robert and his background.  He is a teacher in a small village in England. He's stayed in the general area where is parents and grandparents live, but doesn't really feel connected to anything.  He saves his money so that during the summer holidays he can travel.  His current trip to Southeast Asia eventually brings him to Cambodia.  He doesn't have much money left, but on a whim decides to visit a casino where he manages (without much effort or thought) to win $2000.  This money will be the catalyst for many of the events which follow.  He hires a taxi driver, Ouksa, who takes him to some ruins where he encounters another westerner.  Simon is a confident and friendly American who invites Robert to his house.  Ouksa tries to dissuade Robert from going with Simon, saying he doesn't trust the American, but Robert brushes off the warning.  Simon seems to be prosperous, and he is welcoming and friendly, even being so kind as to share his opium (what a guy).  When Robert regains consciousness after his night of partying at Simon's house, he's on a boat wearing someone else's clothes and with all of his belongings and casino winnings missing (I hate when that happens!).  The boat operator has apparently been given instructions to drop Robert in the city but doesn't seem to understand English.  Robert does find $100 in one of the pockets of the strange clothes, and freed of the rest of his belongings, he's strangely at peace.  He decides to find a hotel and try to find clients who will pay for English lessons.  In this way, he meets Sophal, the daughter of a wealthy doctor.  Sophal can speak English already, but her father wants to at least give her some direction after she dropped out of medical school in Paris.

The second part of the book, Dogs and Vultures, concerns what happens to Simon after he steals Robert's money.  Simon and his Khmer girlfriend, Sothea, are drug addicts who simply spend all their time high or trying to find drugs.  Needless to say, their ill-gotten money does not turn out to be a blessing for them.

Dhamma, the third section of the book, involves Davuth, an immoral policeman.  He has good motives for his corruption, a daughter in private school, but he's ruthless and willing to do anything to get more money.  He finds out where Simon got his large windfall, and becomes convinced that Robert has even more money stashed somewhere. In the final section of the book, Hunters in the Dark, the characters come together in a final series of events that will leave nearly everyone damaged in some way.  Is the cursed money to blame?  Certainly, many of the characters seem to be motivated by the pursuit of the cash.

The book was so very slow to get started.  The first part of the book read like a very boring travel journal.  We were treated to where Robert went, how he got there, and what he saw once he arrived.  The author also throws in many presumably Khmer words, with no attempt to explain them, so the book seemed to be gibberish at some points.  Robert is also a supremely annoying character.  He has no direction, no plans, and no enthusiasm for anything.  He is repeatedly warned against people and actions by locals, yet he consistently ignores this advice (to disastrous effect every time).

It was interesting to read about Cambodia, a country that I hadn't encountered much in fiction before.  Davuth the policeman often remembers his days as a young killer in the days of the Pol Pot regime, and this early causal exposure to violence has helped to shape his current outlook on life.  Overall, the book was an interesting look at how the events of the recent past have shaped Cambodia.  It's also a cautionary tale of how greed and the pursuit of easy money never end well.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Hunters in the Dark from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Monday, March 21, 2016

Forgiving the worst

Most people, thankfully, never have to experience the horror of losing a child to violence.  When a child is murdered, it is natural to want the killer brought to justice and punished. In the touching book Forgiving My Daughter's Killer, Kate Grosmaire discusses the terrible events surrounding her daughter's death, and how she was able to find peace through forgiveness for the perpetrator of the crime.

Ann Grosmaire was a 19 year old college student living in Florida when her life tragically ended.  Her parents were at home on a normal Sunday in Tallahassee when their lives were changed forever by the arrival of two police detectives at their front door.  The news that their daughter had been shot and was in the hospital fighting for her life was terrible enough, but worse news was to come:  she had been shot by her boyfriend of two years, Conor McBride.  Believing he had killer her, Conor had driven around aimlessly for nearly an hour before going to a police station and confessing to murder.  Amazingly, despite a devastating head wound, Ann was still alive.  At the hospital, her parents, Andy and Kate, are surrounded by family, friends and fellow church members. After a while, they are also joined by some unexpected visitors:  Conor's parents.  While shocked and concerned for their daughter's welfare, the Grosmaires nevertheless are compassionate and helpful to Conor's parents, feeling that their lives have also been turned upside down.  Kate is also shocked to learn that Conor has listed her as one of the four people permitted to visit him in prison.

Through difficult times in her marriage, Kate Grosmaire had to deal with forgiveness, and came to realize that forgiving the person who had wronged her allowed her to let go of her own anger.  After Ann's death, she and her husband become intrigued with the idea of restorative justice for Ann's killer.  This idea allows for the criminal to work toward understanding the people he has injured with his behavior, and to work toward some sort of restitution.  Of course, in this instance there is no way to bring Ann back, but her parents felt that by participating in Conor's punishment and rehabilitation, they could ensure that he would have a chance at a better life than just being warehoused in a prison.  It involved the parents of the victim and the perpetrator, as well as the perpetrator sitting down with mediators and discussing the crime and how it has effected everyone.  It also allowed the Grosmaires to have a say in the type of sentence Conor would receive.

The book ends with a Q & A with Conor himself.  All in all, I found the book to be a moving story of how parents received the worst news possible, yet were able to keep from letting their grief turn to anger.  Their work with restorative justice has prompted other people in similar situations to contact them for help and advice.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Forgiving My Daughter's Killer from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review