Friday, February 24, 2017

There is no word for those who have lost a child

Few people can imagine the utter devastation that results in losing a child.  The author Stephane Gerson chronicles the life of his family following the death of his son Owen in the book Disaster Falls.

Owen was just 8 years old when he traveled from his home in New York to Utah with his parents and older brother Julian.  The mother of the family, Alison, was attending a work meeting there, and the rest of the family decided to come along and make a vacation out of the trip.  Friends had recommended the rafting adventure down the Green River.  A group of 24 adults, children and guides started out on the rafting trip. When the group assembled at a meeting point after the first day of rafting, Owen was not there.  While his parents searched frantically for him, a guide took a kayak and traced their route back where she found Owen's lifeless body.  Although a helicopter had been called in for search and rescue, it carried so much equipment that there was no room for passengers.  Because they were at such a remote spot, the only option was to carry on with the original plan:  to camp overnight and raft out the next morning.

The first part of the book deals with the first year following the accident.  The family dealt with the loss in different ways.  Stephane, the father, was beset by guilt and lethargy.  His wife became restless and walked constantly.  Their son, Julian, was troubled by losing his brother, but also by having to witness his parents' grief and anguish.  The family is constantly comforted by learning new things about Owen as friends and classmates relate stories that they'd never heard before.  Stephane was also frequently told about losses that others had suffered, which he interpreted as a way for the speakers to unburden themselves.  He also learns more about Disaster Falls, including the many mishaps that have occurred there throughout history and how it got its name.  After the accident, Stephane was dismayed that he hadn't taken more time to learn about the area where he would be taking his family.  Later on in the book, he goes to his family's ancestral homeland, Belarus, with his father (whose parents had immigrated to the US in the 1920s).  Although his 80 year old father had never visited Belarus, this trip served to draw them closer together as they reflected on roots and loss.

The final section of the book, End Stories, deals with the family's lawsuit against the rafting company that conducted the trip they were on when Owen died.  The family had been upset that the dangers of the rafting trip were minimized, that the company's representatives were not fully trained or able to handle a possible death and that there was little communication about what was going on during and after the rescue operation.

This is such a horrible scenario.  Of course there's no easy way to deal with the death of a child, but being forced to remain in an isolated area and wait to inform family and friends of the loss is especially heartbreaking.   At the same time, there were some strange things that caught my attention.  First, it was odd that the family saw nothing strange in sending a young child with no rafting experience alone along a very dangerous stretch of water, and that there was no research by the parents about this area before they went. There was another strange incident mentioned.  Apparently Owen was invited to a sleepover and while he was there, he became homesick and called his parents to come and get him.  So naturally, the parents took him to a child psychologist to find out why he had "separation anxiety" -- at 7 years old!  Of course, now looking back, his father is wondering if Owen someone had some "premonition" that he wouldn't be with his family for long.  It's still a heartbreaking tale of loss and the people that are left behind.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Disaster Falls from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sometimes, a character is just too dumb to live

I know we are supposed to feel sorry for Lo Blacklock, the narrator of The Woman in Cabin 10.  Soon after events in the story commence, she wakes up to find a burglar in her house.  She is injured when he slams the door in her face, and becomes terrified that he will return.  While this might be an explanation for her unstable behavior that follows, it doesn't explain why she is already on medication for panic attacks, why she constantly drinks too much, and why she is refusing to commit to her longtime boyfriend, Judah.

Lo has worked for 10 years as a travel writer at Velocity magazine.  Her boss, Rowan, gets all the choice assignments though.  Lo thinks she's finally gotten her chance to move up the career ladder when Rowan goes on maternity leave and Lo is given the assignment to go on the maiden voyage of the luxury cruise ship the Aurora.  The Aurora is sailing from England up to the fjords of Norway on an excursion to view the Northern Lights.  There are only 10 cabins on the ship, and Lo is in cabin 9.  On the first night of the cruise, Lo realizes that her mascara was in her purse that was taken during the recent break-in at her flat.  She decides to see if her neighbor in cabin 10 might have some.  When she knocks on the door, it is eventually answered by a young woman with long dark hair wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt.  She distractedly gives Lo the mascara and tells her to keep it.  When Lo attends dinner that evening, she is introduced to her fellow passengers, but never sees the woman from Cabin 10.

After dinner, Lo makes her way unsteadily back to her cabin after drinking too much (yet again).  Not only is she affected by all the alcohol, but since the break-in, she's been unable to sleep.  So it's with great weariness that she collapses into bed.  While in a deep sleep, she suddenly is jerked from sleep.  She's unable to tell why, but she has a vague memory of hearing a scream.  As she listens, she hears the veranda door next door open, and then hears a large splash.  She goes to her own veranda to look out, and sees a smear of blood on the dividing glass.   She instantly picks up the phone to report what she's just seen, and a security officer is sent to speak to her.  He tells her that cabin 10 is empty, and even takes her next door to see this for herself.  Although she'd just had a glimpse into the room when the woman lent her the mascara, she'd seen a room in disarray.  Now it's totally empty.  They go and look out onto the veranda, and there's no blood on the dividing screen.

Most people, especially those who had been drinking and were unsure of the circumstances, might have let it go. Not Lo.  She insists on an investigation and continues to ask everyone if they've seen the woman from cabin 10.  She continues to ask questions even when she's warned off by anonymous messages and when evidence of the woman's existence (the mascara and a photo) disappears.  Interspersed with the events taking place as Lo investigates are emails from Judah and news reports that indicate that Lo is missing and hasn't been in contact with anyone since the boat left England.

While the idea of the story is promising, Lo is such an unlikeable, annoying character that I was rooting for the unseen "bad guy" to catch up with her and put us all out of our misery.  She is constantly complaining about how tired she is and how much her head aches, yet she seems to have plenty of energy to drink and pester everyone.  The most annoying thing (out of many) about her is her inability to speak coherently to anyone.  Whenever anyone speaks to her, she begins, "I . . ." and stops to think/reminisce/reconsider.  SHE CAN NEVER SPEAK TO ANYONE NORMALLY! It's beyond maddening.  It's hard to believe that anyone -- boss, co-workers, suspects, fellow passengers -- can take her seriously when she can't form a coherent sentence.  I wish I had read the ebook because I would have liked to search for how many times she said, "I cursed myself for my stupidity."  However many times it was, it surely wasn't as many times as I did.

Final Verdict for The Woman in Cabin 10: ZERO Gherkins, for having a protagonist who was too irritating to live

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pursuit of the truth, not the person

DS Nancy Devlin has a secret.  Although she's been awarded a medal for bravery for her work with the National Crime Division, she's spent her entire police career protecting Frank Le Saux, a somewhat shady businessman.  In the 6-part series The Level, Nancy, played by Karla Crome, has to walk a fine line between investigating crime while concealing her own unethical actions.  When Frank calls and asks Nancy to meet him one night, bullets ring out from an unseen gunman, killing Frank and injuring Nancy.  Because she must hide her ties to Frank, Nancy doesn't go to the hospital to treat her own bullet wound.  Things get even more complicated when Nancy is sent to Brighton to investigate the crime.

Nancy grew up in Brighton, where her policeman father, Gil, was abusive to her mentally unstable mother.  This has caused Nancy to become estranged from her father.  Her mother has been hospitalized once again while her mental health issues are being treated and  her medication adjusted.  When Nancy was growing up, her best friend was Hayley Le Saux, Frank's daughter.  Because of her unstable home life, Nancy spent a great deal of time with the Le Saux family and saw Frank as a surrogate father.  This causes her, once she begins her career on the police force, to protect Frank whenever his name comes up in investigations.  Nancy and Hayley lost touch years ago, when Hayley's unsavory boyfriend, Shay Nash, introduced her to drugs and Hayley was packed off to rehab by her parents.  In the years since, Hayley has married a professional footballer and moved to Spain.  When she returns to Brighton for her father's funeral with her two small children, Hayley reveals that she has split up with her husband and will be staying in England.  Frank also has a son, Tate, who is living in a group home for mentally disabled adults.
As Nancy begins investigating Frank's death, her boss DCI Michelle Newman assigns her to work with Gunner Martin.  Not long afterward, her colleague and almost boyfriend, Kevin O'Dowd, is sent down from London to also help with the investigation.  Not only must she attempt to hide her personal involvement with Frank, she must also investigate his death while her gunshot wound is causing her a lot of pain.  The crime scene technicians soon discover a 5th bullet at the crime scene.  This bullet is discovered to have DNA that doesn't match Frank's, so the police know there was a missing witness with Frank when he died.  Frank owned a haulage company, and when he had his clandestine meeting with Nancy before his death, he mentioned that he was in trouble and also that he was working on a deal that was a "gold mine."  Before long, Shay Nash contacts the police because he had a shipment on one of Le Saux's trucks that has gone missing.  As the police attempt to trace the shipment, they realize that one of Frank's trucks is unaccounted for.  Meanwhile, another thuggish Brighton businessman, Duncan Elliott, who owns Eagle Repairs has appeared on the scene.  Elliott is very interested in purchasing Frank's business, and he's not a man you say no to . . .

Nancy certainly can be forgiven for playing fast and loose with the rules of professional behavior when she is allowed to get away with so much.  With her superior Michelle Newman's knowledge (both before and after the fact) she commits several crimes that are brushed under the rug.  Nancy grows suspicious of her colleagues when various pieces of evidence are unaccounted for during the investigation.  It's a game of cat and mouse to try to figure out which of her fellow cops are "bent" and working with the criminal elements of Brighton.  As the investigation continues, Nancy has reason to suspect almost everyone. 

Viewers who love British TV will recognize many famous faces in The Level.  Although his appearance is brief, Philip Glenister makes an appearance as Frank Le Saux (although he does get rather a lot of screen time as a corpse!).  Michelle Newman is played by the former Carol of EastEnders, Lindsey Coulson.  Nancy's London colleague O'Dowd will be instantly recognizable as Robert James-Collier, whom many of us loved to hate as the wicked yet oddly endearing Barrow on Downton Abbey.  It's great to see these fantastic actors appearing in new roles.  Beautiful beach side Brighton also adds atmosphere to the series and reinforces the idea that no matter how idyllic the location, bad things can still happen.

The 2-disc set also includes bonus behind-the-scenes featurettes with the actors, writers and directors discussing how the series came into being, why people are fascinated with murder mysteries and even the quality of catering on the set!  It's an interesting look at how much work goes on to create a series and how many people are involved that don't appear in front of the camera!
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Level from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Just who is the villan here?

Pity poor single mom Louise. She goes out for a night at the pub and engages in a little flirtation and kissing with a hot guy.  Soon afterwards, he's introduced as her new boss. AWK-ward!  Unfortunately, things rapidly get more complicated that even that situation would suggest in the new novel Behind Her Eyes.

Louise's ex-husband has been remarkably generous.  He continues to pay most of her bills and participates in the shared custody of their son, even though he's remarried.  This allows Louise to live in London (although in a small apartment) and only work part-time as a secretary for a psychiatrist.  Once David, her pub guy, joins the practice they quickly rekindle their relationship.  Of course, it's not long before Louise is able to confirm her suspicion that David is married.  His wife is willowy, blonde and beautiful.  Soon after she takes up with David, Louise is nearly knocked down when a woman runs into her (literally) outside her son's school. Improbably, David's wife, Adele, has collided with her.  To apologize for their mishap, Adele suggests they go for a coffee.  Louise admits that she is David's secretary, and while the two women enjoy a nice chat, Adele asks that Louise not mention their meeting to David.  The two women hit it off and are soon seeing more of each other, even going to the gym together.  All this puts Louise into an odd position:  she's having an affair with her new bestie's husband, but he has no idea the two women know each other.

The chapters alternate between Adele's past and present, as well as shifting the present narrator from Adele to Louise.  When Adele was a teenager, David (whom she'd always had a crush on) rescued her from a fire that killed her parents.  Although the death of her parents left her wealthy, Adele was unable to cope with the tragic events and spent some time at a rehabilitation center/hospital where she met recovering addict Rob.  Even though she's in love with David, she knows he'll get along well with her new best friend Rob once they meet . . . but is she being overly optimistic?

As present events unfold, Louise becomes increasingly suspicious of David.  While he appears kind and loving, disturbing events surrounding Adele make her concerned for her new friend.  Why does Adele have to rush home to take David's calls at a certain time every day?  Why does she take so many prescription medications?  And what about those bruises on her face?  Could David really be dangerous?

Events become more and more nail-biting as we grow more concerned for Adele (is she in danger from David?) and Louise (ditto?).  Could the events that happened during the deaths of Adele's parents have something to do with why she and David are locked in an uneasy marriage?  As is being mentioned, there is a final twist that will surely hit the reader out of the blue (it did me!).  If you like to unravel a mystery and be hit with a shock ending, this is the book for you!

Disclaimer:  I received an Advanced Reading Copy of Behind Her Eyes from Flatiron Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Dead bodies are fine, but I can't abide dust

Molly Lefebure was a young journalist in London when she was tapped to become the secretary for forensic pathologist Dr. Keith Simpson during the years of World War II.  She details her experiences, including some involvement with famous murder cases, in Murder on the Home Front.

As the secretary to Dr. Simpson, Ms. Lefebure was required to attend autopsies and visit crime scenes in order to take notes.  Often, she apparently lugged along a typewriter to do her work.  Some of the interesting cases she helped with were the Dobkin murder (where the murdered woman was first mistaken for a bombing victim), the Luton Sack Murder, and the pitiful case of poor Joan Pearl Wolfe, who lived in a "wigwam" in the woods and was bludgeoned to death by her Canadian soldier lover.

Ms. Lefebure doesn't seem at all bothered by death, bodies (no matter what condition the unfortunates are found in), dismembered limbs, etc. but she's very judgmental of the behavior of the people who end up the victims of violent crime.  In one chapter, she mentions a "not very interesting" murder of  "a girl of fifteen and a half who had already given much trouble by running around with men" (easy to read between the lines that the teenager was just asking to be murdered and how boring it all was).  Then there's the case of the young soldier who commits suicide, apparently because of the shame he felt at having been diagnosed with a venereal disease.  The author laments "if the soldier had been a young middle-class intellectual, instead of a respectable working-class boy" he would have been able to shrug off the experience.  She further demonstrates her lack of sensitivity when she describes Rachel Dobkin, who was murdered by her husband, as being a "poor, stupid, inoffensive little woman."  There are also plenty of shocked comments on the state of some houses (as a result of the housekeeping practices, not the because of the crime scenes) she visits.  The book begins with an editor's note stating that some passages were edited for this edition.  I shudder to think what was left out when sections like those mentioned above were allowed to stay.

While the book was originally published in the mid 1950s, when attitudes were apparently very different to the sensitivities of today, it's still rather shocking to read how little sympathy Ms. Lefebure had for the victims.  Still, I suppose it takes a tough exterior to be able to work around such tragic and upsetting scenes, so maybe she wasn't as unfeeling and dismissive as she appears.

Final verdict for Murder on the Home Front  Two Gherkins for being an inside look at a fascinating time in forensic science unfortunately written by an unsympathetic narrator

You're fine as you are, but let's do a few tweaks

The book Radical Beauty starts off with a dedication to the reader: "May you fully accept and embrace the unique Radical Beauty that you already are."  Three hundred and five pages later, you have presumably transformed your already perfectly fine Radically Beautiful self into . . . an even better version?  Unsettling dedication aside, the book is full of information, advice and recipes to help make healthy lifestyle changes.  With the start of the new year, nearly everyone is looking for a fresh start and this book has many great ideas to put that new motivation into action.

Divided into 6 "Pillars" (Internal Nourishment, External Nourishment, Peak Beauty Sleep, etc.), the book aims not to sell readers on the latest fad diet or cosmetic or exercise routine, but rather to make women feel better and regain their confidence in their own skins.  Instead of seeing beauty as a temporary and constantly elusive quality, every woman can achieve her own beauty that is unique and doesn't rely on comparisons either to others or some societal, impossible ideals.

Pillar one takes a very thorough and informative look at how the foods we eat impact on our outer appearance (oily skin, dull hair, brittle nails, etc.) as well as our overall health.  While everyone knows this in theory, the way the authors break down and explain the good and bad foods (and why they fall into these categories) is very interesting.  I especially like how each author gets his or her say.  For instance, Kimberly Snyder sees no use for dairy in modern diets at all, while Dr. Chopra feels it can have a place at the table, in moderation. Seeing that the experts have a hard time coming to consensus on dietary advice even for a chapter in a book helps to illustrate how seriously confused the average consumer is!  The nutritional portion of the book is the largest chapter and contains lots of practical advice.  One idea I liked was the suggestion to "visualize" all the gross things that are going on inside your body as it tries to digest a large or unhealthy meal.  If that doesn't have you running for the kale aisle in the grocery store, nothing will.

The other sections of the book deal with such topics as ingredients to look for (as well as those to avoid) in beauty products, advice on getting a good night's sleep (and the detrimental effects of not doing so), best practices for beauty based on the seasons, ways to make your home healthier and of course, the benefits of exercise.  There is a section on yoga practices (complete with photos!) and what each pose does to benefit the body (I don't care how beneficial it is, I still have no hope of achieving pyramid pose in this lifetime).  The final pillar in the book deals with attaining spiritual beauty including ways to be kind to yourself and stop negative thoughts and self-criticism. This section also includes helpful information on meditation and combating stress.

The book ends with some Radical Beauty recipes, although as with most recipes, there are plenty of ingredients that you are unlikely to find in your kitchen (garam masala? tamari? Anyone?).  Still, the book is very educational and inspiring, although it is so packed with suggestions that it would be difficult to follow all of them. If you're looking to improve your physical and emotional health, however, you can find plenty of ideas in this book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Radical Beauty from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The King of England had basically married a chav

Pity the poor English royal family of 600 years ago.  Even if you were comfortably sitting on the throne, any number of sketchy relatives could be on the sidelines, quietly plotting your downfall.  You might think you were comfortably #1 in line for the crown, but if you had the misfortune of having your father die before you came of age, plenty of uncles and cousins would be ready to step in and "help" you to rule.  The fascinating series Britain's Bloody Crown takes a look at a turbulent time in English history that came to be known as The Wars of the Roses. This four-part series from Acorn Media is a mix of narration by historian Dan Jones and re-creations of events and battles from that unstable time in history, with several interesting historical documents thrown in for good measure.

The root of the trouble can be summed up with the title of Episode One: The Mad King.  Henry V had been a strong and vibrant ruler, who defeated and ruled most of France.  His son, Henry VI, was decidedly less regal and had no interest in messy things like battles.  That was fine while the Duke of Suffolk was alive to keep things in check, but after his death in 1450, the country was on the verge of collapse.  When a band of rioters breech the walls surrounding London, Henry flees the city.  His no-nonsense wife, Margaret of Anjou, takes control of the situation, along with Lord Somerset, who lost a lot of territory in France and came home to England.  The king's cousin, Richard, Duke of York, decides he is the man to run the country and comes to London with a small army to demand the king make him Protector of England.  There is something of a power struggle between the two factions of Queen Margaret and the Duke of York.  This continues off and on for many years -- the nobles don't want to be governed by a French woman, but the Duke of York tries to raise money by forcing the rich to give up some of their land, which doesn't endear him to Parliament, either.  Eventually the Duke of York is killed after chasing Margaret to Scotland and attempting to capture her.  While it would appear the Queen's side won, the divisions had already been sown that would result in more bloodshed over the next quarter century.

In Episode Two, The King Maker Must Die, the Duke of York's son takes the crown and becomes Edward IV.  Edward is still a teenager, and his closest advisor is Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick.  Edward relies on Warwick's counsel, and Warwick is feeling pretty confident about his status at court.  He goes to France to arrange a marriage between Edward and a French princess.  Meanwhile, Edward has gone behind Warwick's back and married Elizabeth Woodville.  She is a widowed mother of two, which would have been scandalous enough, but she brought with her a large and politically unconnected family. Edward immediately begins putting Elizabeth's relatives into advantageous positions and marrying them off to members of the aristocracy.  Once again, two sides form:  the king vs. Warwick.  Warwick goes to France and allies himself with the exiled Queen Margaret.  The two are eventually able to defeat Edward's forces and restore the weak King Henry VI to the throne.  But Henry is no more of a ruler this time than he was before, and Edward is soon able to return to the throne.

One of the most tragic events in English history is played out in Episode Three, The Princes Must Die.   After King Edward IV was returned to the throne, England enjoyed a period of stability.  Unfortunately, this didn't last.  When he died in 1483, there was yet another power struggle.  While his son, 12-year-old Edward V was the heir to the throne, the late king had apparently asked in his will that the boy's uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, be named as protector of the country until young Edward came of age.  The queen, and her Woodville clan, want the young king to be crowned immediately.  While a coronation date for the young king is set, in the meantime Richard sets about grabbing power himself.  He has young Edward and his brother imprisoned in the Tower of London, attempts to have them declared illegitimate, accuses loyal allies of treason and executes them, sets about killing the most troublesome and powerful Woodvilles, etc. The young princes disappear and  Richard can now have himself crowned king, but there are forces at work to challenge his claim.

The final episode, A Mother's Love, documents the life and behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future King Henry VII.  A 13 year old widow when she gave birth to her son in 1457, Margaret had to use her considerable intelligence to protect herself and her son.  Her late husband was a half-brother to the late King Henry VI, so her son has a tenuous claim on the throne.  Margaret marries two more times, the last time to Lord Thomas Stanley who was a rich and influential steward in Edward IV's household.  Margaret is constantly scheming to get her son's lands returned to him and is successful while Edward is alive, but after his death, she decides that Richard needs to be removed from the throne.  Because she has inherited much wealth, she sends money to fund an invasion to her son Henry, who has fled to France.  Henry is eventually able to return to England to challenge Richard for the crown at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  No one is too upset when the devious Richard is defeated.

I enjoyed seeing the people and events of this historical period come alive, and it was very interesting to hear the somewhat irreverent comments of Dan Jones as he explained the motivations that drove the various people to commit seemingly unthinkable actions "for the good of the country."  Jones argues that most of the people were motivated by the desire to protect England and to ensure that peace and stability were restored to the land, but the violence that occurred seemed to always get out of hand.  I was a bit surprised by some of the events (no doubt my lack of historical knowledge contributed to this!).  For instance, whenever someone wanted to challenge the sitting king or ruler, they would just throw together an army of 5,000 or 10,000 men and march toward battle.  I had to
wonder where all these soldiers were coming from.  I know jobs were likely hard to come by (particularly for the non-nobles out there), but I do wonder what would cause someone to throw his lot in with a person who was challenging the current king.  Maybe if they were on the winning side they'd be given lands or money, but it still seems like a risky proposition, particularly if you were on the losing side.  Additionally, it was a bit unclear how some people were able to throw their weight around and have people arrested, confined or executed without any authority.  For instance, before Richard was crowned king, he had several of the Woodvilles arrested and charged with treason -- on what authority???  And why wasn't the queen (widow of the old king and mother of the new one) able to stop it?  It's all very murky.  Events moved very quickly and those in favor one day could suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of events.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Britain's Bloody Crown from Acorn Media in exchange for this review