Monday, September 28, 2015

Some people don't appreciate their good luck

Poor Julia Conley.  Her previously unknown Aunt Regina has died and left her a house in London.  Why do these things never happen to me?  The book That Summer follows Julia as she heads to London to get the house ready for sale and what happens when she uncovers a mystery at the house.

Julia has lived most of her life in New York City.  Parents are from England, but after the death of her mother when Julia was a child, her surgeon father relocated to NYC.  Julia grew up with only a few vague memories of her mother.  When the story opens, Julia has recently been laid off from her finance job in the city, and despite her best efforts, has been unable to find another position.  The letter from England informing her of her inheritance couldn't have come at a better time.

She packs up and travels over to London to inspect the house.  It's old and has been somewhat neglected.  It also turns out the Great Aunt Regina was something of a hoarder, with boxes of papers and receipts stashed in every room.  Julia soon notices a portrait in the living room of a woman in mid-nineteenth century dress.  The painter turns out to be someone she's never heard of, Gavin Thorne, who was an associate of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

As Julia begins to attempt to sort through the mess in the house, she's "helped" by her cousin Natasha.  It seems Natasha, daughter of her mother's cousin Caroline, is only too eager to help.  Natasha also brings along her friend Nicholas Dorrington.  Nicholas owns an antiques shop, and Natasha says he'll be able to help identify any valuable items.  As they get to work, Julia soon discovers a painting hidden away in the back of a wardrobe.

The action set in the present day alternates with the story of Imogen Grantham.  Imogen's story takes place mainly in the 1840s.  She was a young, isolated girl living with her widowed father when she met Arthur Grantham.  Arthur seemed dashing a refined, and the young Imogen was thrilled by his proposal.  When her father died, it seemed only natural for her to marry Arthur.  Arthur's first wife had died, leaving him with a young daughter and (unfortunately) a sister-in-law, Jane, who lived in his home.  It soon becomes apparent that Jane doesn't appreciate having a new female in the home.

Arthur is kind to Imogen, but he treats her as one of his possessions -- something to be acquired and showed off in public, but pretty much ignored at home.  Imogen becomes terribly bored.  When Arthur decides to have Imogen's portrait painted, he hires Gavin Thorne, a young up-and-coming artist.  Due to the long process of having a portrait painted, Gavin and Imogen spend a lot of time together.  Before long, events take a predictable turn . . .

The present-day sleuths quickly suspect that the painting found in the wardrobe is by Thorne, but it is one that is unknown in the art world.  Thorne only produced a handful of paintings, and he seemed to disappear, reportedly to Australia, never to be heard from again.  Julia and the attractive Nicholas also become close as they attempt to sort out whether the painting is indeed by Thorne.  But does Nicholas have ulterior motives for wanting to help Julia???

I enjoyed the back-and-forth stories in the book, although I thought the resolution of the historical one was left a little vague.  It seemed somewhat rushed at the end.  But maybe that's just sour grapes coming from someone who's still waiting to inherit a house in central London!

Final Verdict for That Summer:Three Gherkins, for being a two-pronged London mystery

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On your marks, get set, BAKE!

The Great British Baking Show is back!

Armchair bakers, rejoice!  The drama-filled Great British Baking Show returns for its second season on PBS on Sundays beginning September 6.  It will air from 7:00 - 8:00 PM (but check your local listings to verify the broadcast time).  All of the favorites from the first series are back, including Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (the Doyenne of Baking).  Episode one looks ready to get off to a delicious start, when all of the challenges involve cakes (don't watch on an empty stomach!).

The 13 amateur bakers will be challenged each week in three categories.  The Signature Bake generally requires the contestants to bake a tried and true recipe in a given category.  The Technical Bake gives ingredients, but not much in the way of instructions.  The Showstopper Bake involves creations of jaw-dropping complexity and creativity.  It is no surprise that the winner of last season's show was a carpenter!

The 10 week series will be sure to have plenty of drama, tears and stress as the bakers compete to be crowned Master Baker of the week, as well as to avoid elimination and to move on to the next round. The Great British Bake Off (to use its UK title) has won several awards in its five seasons, and so we can hope that more seasons will be shown here in the US!  

If you miss the Sunday night broadcast, there are numerous ways to catch up!  The episodes will be available for streaming through your local PBS station's website the morning after the original airing, and can also be streamed through Roku, Apple TV, Xbox and apps for iPhone and iPad.  Additionally, for those who are brave enough, you can visit PBS Food to see recipes (in case you're feeling creative), video clips, or just to learn more about the contestants.

I'm really looking forward to another season of this great series!  You wouldn't think there would be that much drama in the kitchen, but it's amazing to see how well the contestants (if not always their creations!) perform under pressure.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bless this bag of Cheetos

Just what is a Jackwagon, you may be asking yourself?  As comedian Tim Hawkins points out on the back cover of his book Diary of a Jackwagon, it's an old term referring to military vehicles that were repaired with spare parts and were therefore unreliable.  He uses the term to refer to himself, as someone who is lacking in achievement and who frequently messes up.

The book is a collection of "comedy journal" entries that Hawkins has kept over his 20 year career as an entertainer.  He offers his humorous observations on topics such as marriage, homeschooling (which he and his wife participate in), aging and society.  Each chapter ends with some "Tweet Thoughts" -- Twitter postings he plans to unleash at some point.

The observations are pretty funny and he seems like a down-to-earth and self-effacing kind of guy.  However, the material does seem to get slightly repetitive (his wife is great and he doesn't deserve her, things are different from how he grew up, he's kind of a doofus, etc.).  He also puts a Christian spin on many topics. There are tons and tons of appreciative quotes from a variety of people on the back of the book and covering the first 4 pages (overkill much?).  Still, it's an enjoyable enough read for those who like their comedy topics clean and kind!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Diary of a Jackwagon from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Do you know where your food comes from?

Mark Bittman started writing a food column for the New York Times in 2011 and the book A Bone to Pick is a collection of those columns.  He looks at the broken food-production system, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, which has resulted in over a billion people going hungry every year.  Not only that, but another billion are malnourished or undernourished, even in supposedly wealthy countries such as the United States.  Bittman looks at what he sees as problems which need to be addressed in order to improve food production, reduce waste, and improve nutrition.

There are plenty of stark facts that are presented early in the book:  that the vast majority of grain produced in the United States never makes it to the table (it's either used as animal feed, converted to bio diesel or wasted); that up to 98% of pesticides used end up other than where they were intended (leading to even more pesticide use); that government "farm subsidies" never lead to edible food.  These facts alone are enough to cause concern and outrage.  The author goes on to discuss how "inefficient" small farmers are actually producing nutritious, edible food, and should be subsidized instead of the large, environmentally destructive industrial farms.

Many ideas are presented which will help to solve problems (waste, environmental, dietary, etc.) related to food production and distribution.  Some of these include taxing junk foods (such as the tax Mexico implemented in 2014), crop rotations (to replenish the land and reduce the reliance on pesticides) and support for smaller farmers (to keep farmers on their land and increase local access to healthier foods).  Is there enough wide-spread determination to implement such ideas?

The articles in the book, while written over several years, are gathered into sections such as "Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between, " "What's Wrong with Meat?," and "Legislation and Labeling."  While each individual article contains interesting information, the fact is that when they are grouped together like this, they tend to get a bit repetitive (all 10 articles in the "Sustainability" section, for instance, mention how most grain is turned into animal feed, and how 1/3 of the population is hungry while another 1/3 is obese/malnourished). 

Overall, the book brings up many distressing and unpleasant facts about where our food comes from, and how the entire process could be so easily changed to eliminate both hunger and diet-related diseases.  We can only hope that the pressing issues presented in this book will be addressed so that everyone will have access to the nutritious, bountiful foods that are produced every year (rather than the food being wasted or converted to non-food purposes).

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of A Bone to Pick from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

People are basically good

 We are constantly being bombarded with horrible events from around the world; crime, wars and senseless acts of violence have become a sadly predictable part of the evening news.  Unfortunately, these terrible events are so commonplace that we barely have time to reflect on one tragedy before we are presented with a new one.  But each of these awful occurrences results in shocked and grieving people who must somehow put their lives back together.  The book The Rising takes an in-depth look at one man who survived a horrific home invasion and how he was able to heal and continue on with his life.

In July 2007, Dr. Bill Petit was awakened in the middle of the night as he was being beaten over the head with a baseball bat.  Two intruders had broken in and immediately immobilized him and his family.  He was tied up in the basement, while his wife and two daughters were tied up in their rooms upstairs.  His wife was later taken to a bank and ordered to withdraw money.  She was able to alert bank employees to the situation and the police were notified.  Dr. Petit was able to escape and run to a neighbor's house to ask for help.  Unfortunately, while the police were deciding on how best to handle the situation, the intruders were able to kill Mrs. Petit and set the house on fire, which resulted in the deaths of the two daughters as well.  Since the police had been alerted, they were able to catch the criminals as they fled the crime scene.

Dr. Petit was left completely devastated.  He'd lost his family, his home, and due to lingering medical problems from his injuries, was no longer able to practice medicine.  The book chronicles his journey from those awful days after the murders, through the trials of the two perpetrators, and on to his life since both men were sentenced to death.

The book gives a lot of background on Dr. Petit's early life, including his close-knit family and how he met his wife, Jennifer.  Jennifer was a nurse and a very kind and generous woman.  Even after she was diagnosed with MS, she continued on with work and raising her family.  Daughter Hayley had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to a summer of hanging out with friends before heading off to Dartmouth in the fall. Younger daughter Michaela had just finished fifth grade.  They were a typical loving, close family who had no idea that evil was lurking outside their home.

Dr. Petit, as the lone survivor, naturally dealt with guilt at not being able to save his family.  He moved back in with his parents and tried to figure out how to live without his wife and kids.  This is when his assertion that "people are basically good" was reinforced.  Cards, letters and money poured in from around the world.  People had heard of his terrible story and wanted to offer their sympathy and do what they could to help.  Local friends and neighbors inundated the family with offers of help, free airplane transportation, clothing and whatever else they could do to help.  Sitting down and replying to each letter personally (with the help of his family) initially gave Dr. Petit something to focus on and helped him through the most awful time of his life.  So much money was donated that he started the Petit Family Foundation, dedicated to supporting the education of women in the sciences, helping those with chronic illnesses, and protecting victims of violence.  Working with the foundation also gave him something to focus on.

It took three years before the first defendant was tried, and Dr. Petit attended every day of the trial.  He had to hear the awful details of what his family went through.  After that trial was over, he had to do it all again for the second defendant.  At least there was some justice when both men were sentenced to death.

In the years since losing his family, Dr. Petit has found love again.  He married Christine, a photographer and marketing director and they had a son.  The most amazing thing about the story is how Dr. Petit hasn't lost his faith in the overall goodness of society and his belief that most people are good.  It's sad that his faith in this goodness had to be tested in such a cruel and terrible way.  It was fascinating to read about how he was able to get through such an unimaginable and horrific event and to continue to live a life which honors and pays tribute to his lost loved ones.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Rising from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Friday, July 24, 2015

Let's stay in the 1600s please!

Viper Wine concerns the exploits of Venetia Stanley, one of the great beauties of the 17th century.  Five years older than her husband, the explorer and adventurer Kenelm Digby, she was so concerned about growing older and losing her famous looks that she retreats from society.  She asks her husband to prepare a tonic for her that will help her to regain her youthful beauty, but he refuses, still seeing her as the beautiful woman he married.  She eventually finds someone else to provide her with the Viper Wine potion which will make her beautiful again.  As a couple, the Digbys are each immersed in their own worlds and too distracted to really seem a believable pair.

This book was very hard to read.  I wasn't sure what was happening most of the time.  There were elements of time travel and descriptions of things like radio transmissions sort of thrown in here and there (in a book set in the 1630s) that were distracting and annoying. The characters and setting were interesting enough (and based on real events), but I guess the author felt a straightforward narrative wouldn't be challenging enough.  The result was a confusing, meandering, mess of a story.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Viper Wine from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Life beyond death row

Mitch Rutledge is someone who started out life with the cards stacked against him.  Born to a 13-year-old mother and never knowing his father, he never really had a family to be a part of.  His mother was in and out of his life, so he and his 3 siblings were passed among family members, only to be briefly reunited when his mother showed back up.  Eventually, his path led to prison.  Death on Hold tells the story of how he ended up in prison, and eventually began a correspondence with Burton Folsom which would change both of their lives.

Mitch Rutledge had several opportunities to turn his life around before he ended up in prison, but he was always held back by one obstacle:  illiteracy. The shame of being unable to read or fill out a job application led him to a life on the streets.  After his mother died when he was only 15, he was well and truly on his own.  Before long, he ended up in prison, after an attorney convinced him to plead guilty to a burglary he didn't commit (although he rationalized that there were plenty of crimes he had gotten away with up to that point, so maybe things were just being evened out!).  This put him into the criminal justice system, where he learned to adapt to the system.  He talks of being jealous of other inmates who had family members to visit them in prison and to care about their welfare.

Eventually, when he was released from prison, he continued his life on the streets and ended up killing someone during a robbery.  Luckily for him, a lawyer associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center defended him during his trial for murder.  The new lawyer taught him how to speak and behave in front of the jury, something Rutledge had never before considered.  Even so, he was convicted and sentenced to death row.  While on death row, Time magazine sent a reporter to interview inmates, and he was featured in a story that caught the attention of Burt and Anita Folsom. The article painted a grim picture of several death row inmates, with Rutledge being described as having an IQ of 84, defective and concluded, "His death would not be unbearably sad."

Both Burton and Anita Folsom read the article and were incensed at how Rutledge had been portrayed.  Both were teachers and both were unable to forget the friendless man sitting on death row in Alabama.  Burton Folsom reached out by writing a letter to Rutledge, and the two became friends.  As well as the Folsoms, several other people were moved by the Time article and also began regularly writing Rutledge.  This small group became his family, and even testified on his behalf when he attempted to get his death sentence commuted.

Eventually, Mitch's sentence was commuted to life without parole and then he moved into the general prison population at Holman Prison.  His story continues as he discusses the problems he faced adjusting to life in prison, even as he taught himself to read and write and went on to earn his GED and take college courses.  This book is mostly from Mitch's perspective, taken from letters he's written to the Folsoms over the years.  It is fascinating to read about all he was able to accomplish behind bars, from speaking to at-risk youth groups, to tutoring and mentoring his fellow inmates.  Overall, this is an inspirational story about a man who was able to see the terrible wrongs he had committed in his youth and to become a useful member of society, even from behind bars.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Death on Hold from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review