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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Self-absorbed much?

Pity the poor novelist, especially one who has had at least one successful book in the past.  There's always pressure to live up to the former glory, as well as a possible unfortunate tendency to want to bask in past fame even when more recent efforts haven't been as successful.  The world of a popular novelist and his attempts to remain relevant form the basis for Herman Koch's new novel Dear Mr. M.

M. is how the author is referred to throughout the story.  Now nearing 80, his most famous book, Payback, dealt with the real-life disappearance of a local history teacher (who happened to be having an affair with one of his students).  In the years since that success, M. has followed up with several novels, including one cruelly exposing the "faults" of his ex-wife who left him for a disheveled artist. He now writes mainly about events that happened during WWII.  M. currently lives in an apartment in Amsterdam with his young second wife and 4 year old daughter.

Living above M. is someone we quickly discover was actually involved in the events surrounding the disappearance of the teacher from M.'s bestselling novel.  M. has no idea that his neighbor played a part in this story.  M., in fact, shows little interest in anything other than himself (if the neighbor's viewpoint is to be believed).  The neighbor spends quite a lot of time monitoring the lives of M. and his family, and isn't at all impressed with the behavior, conceit or intelligence of M.

The story is told from the alternating viewpoints: of M., the neighbor, Laura (the girl having an affair with the teacher and a fellow student), and eventually even that of the teacher who disappeared.  The events shift from the present back to the events leading up to the fateful day of the disappearance.  We eventually learn that the neighbor's name is Herman, which M.'s wife remarks is the same name as her husband.

So the young man at the center of the disappearance, the writer in the story, and the author of the book all are named Herman?  I'm not sure what the reader is supposed to make of that.  The events surrounding the disappearance of the teacher make up the plot of the story, but a good 1/3 of the book deals with tedious descriptions of the writer M., his life, his thoughts on fellow writers, interviews with him about (what else?) himself and how he came to write this or that . . . the book really bogs down with all this unnecessary commentary.  It adds nothing to the story, only to let us know how self-absorbed M. is and how much back-biting and rivalry there is in the publishing industry.  For the events of the story the reader really wants to know, however, there are many gaps.  Characters appear and leave without any indication of what might have happened to them other than vague, tantalizing statements that are never clarified ("After what she did . . .").  Other statements are startlingly dropped into the story and never explained ("She could sense something about me . . .", "She had to tell me several times because I didn't understand . . .").  Yet we get page after boring page about M.'s thoughts on his fellow writers.  I can understand that the author wants the reader to fill in some of the details on his or her own, but it would have been nice to have more events in the actual "mystery" clarified rather than being privy to every stray thought in M.'s head.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Dear Mr. M from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Live for Today Template

Imagine if someone, somewhere were keeping track of all your happy memories and that at some point you would have to pay (literally) for them.  That's the idea behind the quirky book The Invoice by the Swedish author and actor Jonas Karlsson.

The story begins as our unnamed narrator receives a strange invoice in the mail for over 5,700,000 kronor (about $800,000 in US money).  His name is on the bill, but there's no clear indication about what the bill is actually for.  Has he ordered some high-ticket item and forgotten about it?  Are the commas in the wrong places, and maybe it's supposed to be a bill for 57,000 instead (still an outrageous sum, but easier to wrap your head around).  Since there must clearly be some mistake, he throws the bill in the trash and heads off to work at the video store.

He only works part-time at the video store, and even when he's at work, there's not a lot to do.  He is a film buff, so it is enjoyable for him to be able to speak to the rare customer who comes in about film in general and more especially about rare or unusual films.  His slacker friend Roger also drops by from time to time, but with no romantic partner, the narrator leads a quiet life of work, going home to his small apartment to watch movies, play video games or listen to music and occasionally meet Roger for some not-very-exciting-or-adventurous outings.

So he is disturbed and somewhat alarmed to receive another invoice, this one even higher due to the "late fees" being added.  There is a customer service number to call, and after being on hold for many hours, he's finally able to speak to a customer service representative.  She tells him her name is Maud and asks what she can help him with.  As he begins to explain the gigantic bill that he's received in error, Maud is aghast.  Hasn't he been watching the news?  Seen all the leaflets? Walked by all the posters in town?  Everyone knows about the Invoices. It seems that the world powers-that-be have gotten together and designed the ultimate wealth re-distribution scheme.  Those who are happiest and having the best lives are charged most, and once they've paid in what they owe, the funds will be redistributed to those who haven't been as fortunate.  Maud goes on to question the things that the narrator enjoys -- sunshine, his apartment, the smell of flowers, etc.  She explains that none of that is free, and that now it's time to pay up.

The narrator becomes increasingly upset as he attempts to convince WRD (World Resources Distribution, the company behind the invoices) that he doesn't have any money or assets to pay such a large bill.  He assumes that there must have been a mistake somewhere in the accounting.  After several visits to the WRD headquarters (all the while trying to get a glimpse of Maud, his phone advisor), the situation doesn't seem to be getting better.  Will anyone listen to him? Why does he owe such an astronomical amount when others who seem to be doing so much better than he is received lower invoices?  Can he ever hope to pay off such a large sum?

I really enjoyed this slim book, and all the ideas it puts forth -- the most successful people aren't always those with the most money; you can be happy with your life even if you don't have much materially to show for it; misfortune can be a good thing in helping us to grow and mature; some people will never be happy even if things are turning out well for them.  I enjoyed Jonas Karlsson's first book The Room as well, and I hope both books will eventually be turned into films.

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

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's not all about you

David Boudia sounded like a real jerk.  While he was a successful athlete, he was rude, arrogant, entitled and had no time for anyone who wouldn't benefit him in some way. He also used every opportunity to abuse cigarettes and alcohol -- and marijuana when he thought there were no drug tests on his horizon. OK, maybe he didn't ever reach Ryan Lochte's level of jerkdom, but he was up there giving ol' Ryan a run for his money.  Greater Than Gold describes Boudia's change of heart and attitude that allowed him to overcome his disastrous showing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where he won no medals) to becoming a more grateful, focused athlete who was able to bring home medals from the next two Olympics competitions.

David was born into a Catholic family with two hard-working parents and two older sisters.  In order to channel his boundless energy, his parents signed the young boy up for gymnastics lessons.  He soon realized that no matter how successful he was in the sport, no matter how much praise and recognition he received, he always wanted more and to be the center of attention.  Eventually, he got burned out on gymnastics but had discovered diving.  He (and his family) poured all his energy (and lots of time and money) into his diving training.  He was crushed after his performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and decided that rather than turn pro (where he would earn a lot of money very quickly) he would go on to college.  His Purdue coach, Adam, was patient and able to reign in the impatient Boudia and help him to focus on the process of earning a medal, rather than rushing headlong toward glory (which didn't work out so well in Beijing).

Because of his earlier successes in the sport, Boudia was somewhat famous on campus. This did nothing to reduce his partying out-of-control lifestyle.  One day in his sophomore year, he had something of a crisis, which led to a long talk with his coach Adam and Adam's wife Kimiko.  Due to his feeling so low despite all of his outward successes, Boudia was receptive to their Christian message.  He was baptized and began to work not for glory and adulation for himself, but to use his sport and talent to bring glory to God.  He also got married and had a child, two things which tend to help most party-animals slow down!

Although he ultimately achieved Olympic glory in London in 2012, Boudia has had to struggle with the fame and the realization that achieving his goal weren't as satisfying as he thought they would be. It was interesting to read about his struggles with hubris and how he became more process-oriented rather than goal-oriented to achieve success. Still, even though he's worked hard and achieved great things, there were many instances where he had to remind readers of his success ("I won Big 10 Athlete of the Week again?").  It sounds like even after all his achievements, he still struggles with his ego and sense of entitlement.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Greater Than Gold from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, August 22, 2016

Can't we leave the snakes alone to do their snaky business?

Poor Gwen Marcey certainly has a lot on her plate in When Death Draws Near. An underemployed forensic artist, she's been commissioned to travel from her home in Montana to Pikeville, Kentucky to help draw a suspect in a series of vicious rapes.  At the same time, a recent bout of cancer has left her broke, and her ex-husband is threatening to sue her for full custody of their 15 year old daughter, Aynslee.  So when Gwen attempts to interview a victim who is recovering in the hospital, she's hoping to be able to do the sketch and get back to her life as soon as possible.

The hospitalized victim, Shelby Lee, refuses to say anything, so Gwen resolves to return later, and this time not be accompanied by the local Sheriff, Clay Reed, who doesn't seem too thrilled to have Gwen in town anyway.  Gwen isn't able to follow through, because she soon learns that Shelby Lee has checked herself out of the hospital and disappeared -- just like several previous victims.  When the young clerk of the hotel where Gwen is staying disappears in the middle of her shift, Gwen is terrified that the "Hillbilly Rapist" has struck again.

Not only is Sheriff Reed unhappy with Gwen's presence in town . . . it seems that someone else is, too.  Walking home from dinner one night Gwen is nearly run down, and later she finds a rattle snake in her bed.  Due to various events in town (who knew Pikeville was such a happenin' place?), there are no other hotel options for Gwen.  Luckily, Sheriff Reed tells her that the people who wanted to bring her in on the case from the beginning, Blanche and Arless Campbell, have insisted that she come and stay with them.  The Campbells are wealthy and influential.  Arless Campbell is a state senator with higher political aspirations.  Blanche is doing all she can to improve the image of eastern Kentucky.  Between them, they want all suggestion of crime, poverty or general "backwardness" removed from Pikeville.

All of this ties in with a second issue that Gwen becomes involved with: the practice of snake handling during religious services.  Since she's in town, Gwen is asked to do a facial recreation sketch for an unidentified body that has been found in the woods, apparently killed by a snake bite.  Gwen does such a good job that the young man's parents gratefully ask her to attend his funeral.  Once Gwen's new hosts, the Campbells, hear this, they ask her to attend and come back and draw sketches of the people who attend the funeral.  Since Senator Campbell has gotten a law passed in Kentucky forbidding the practice of snake handling, he wants the members of this particular church exposed so that he can enforce the law and hopefully stamp out the practice for good. Gwen (and eventually her daughter, Aynslee, who comes to stay with her) both face danger as they are unsure if they can trust anyone or if the snake handling church is looking to silence its critics.

I appreciate that the author was trying to demonstrate that, even if their practices seem strange to outsiders, the free practice of religion (by consenting adults) is one of the foundations of this country.  I didn't like the fact that it appeared the author had done some research for this book, and by golly, she was going to make sure to impart that to the reader.  For instance, when she attends a service at the snake handling church, an African-American woman makes sure to come up to Gwen and let her know that the Pentacostal  movement was started in Los Angeles in the African-American community.  Job done, that character wanders off and is never mentioned again.  Another strange thing is near the beginning of the book when Gwen and Sheriff Reed seem to play "serial killer Jeopardy" with each other (one giving characteristics and the other providing the name of a particular serial killer).  Very odd, especially since they don't seem to like each other and don't really get along otherwise. You'd think bonding over serial killer talk would allow them to warm to one another, but not in this case!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of When Death Draws Near from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Friday, July 15, 2016

Not too late to join the floury fun!

So I am a little bit late to the excitement this year, but the wonderful Great British Baking Show is currently MUST SEE viewing on Friday evenings!  This season began July 1, but there are still plenty of bakers vying for the weekly title of Star Baker, as well as the overall crowning glory of winning the entire thing!  The finale was the most-watched program in the UK in 2015, so you know you don't want to miss it!

Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have to once again put the amateur bakers through their paces as they tackle such challenges as cakes, breads, biscuits (cookies to you and me) and desserts.  Each episode gives the contestants 3 chances to prove their skills (or fail miserably!).  First is the Signature Challenge, where the bakers are making usually tried and true recipes that they are familiar with.  Next is the Technical Challenge, which tests the contestants' abilities to figure out how to make the recipe with only the vaguest of instructions.  Finally, the Showstopper usually features creations of jaw-dropping complexity and appearance.

If you miss an episode or need to catch up will be available to stream each morning after broadcast at It will also be available on PBS station-branded digital platforms, such as ROKU, Apple TV and Google Chromecast, and on PBS iPad and iPhone apps. Throughout the season, fans can visit PBS Food to learn more about the contestants and get exclusive recipes, photos and video clips from the program. If you want to discuss the program with your fellow enthusiasts online, use the hashtag #PBSBakingShow.

Check your local listings, but most areas are seeing The Great British Baking Show on PBS Fridays at 9:00 pm.  Now, am I brave enough to test out any of the recipes?  I must be sure and test my fire extinguisher and smoke detectors before I begin!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

This nun is blue for several reasons

Sister Eve Divine, the motorcycle riding nun who moonlights as a private detective is on a new case in Sister Eve and the Blue Nun.  As well as investigating a murder, Sister Eve is at a crossroads in her life.  The monastery where she has lived and worked for many years has suddenly banned the nuns who lived there.  They have all had to leave their longtime home and find new orders to join.  In Sister Eve's case, she has moved back home with her father, retired police Captain Jackson Divine who now runs a detective agency.

Sister Eve is back at the monastery in order to attend a conference about the 17th century Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda.  Sister Maria hasn't yet been declared a saint, but she performed the miracle of bilocation -- living in Spain and yet also appearing at the same time to the Native American Jumano Indians in what is now New Mexico.  The featured speaker at the conference, Dr. Kelly Middlesworth, is going to drop a bombshell during her speech:  that writings from Sister Maria have been discovered that prove she actually visited New Mexico.  Dr. Middlesworth got these writings from her brother, Anthony, who is a monk at the monastery. While he was doing some work at a remote church, he found the writings and smuggled them out to show his sister.  He only intended to show them to her before returning them to their rightful place at the church, but Kelly is determined that the world should know of their existence.  The evening before her speech, however, she is found dead in her room at the monastery.  It is her brother Anthony who finds her, and instead of calling for help, he immediately goes to Sister Eve for help.

Eve confirms that Kelly is dead and begins looking around the room for clues as to what happened.  She suspects that Kelly was poisoned.  As she's investigating, Father Oliver, the head of the monastery arrives.  Anthony also told him of his sister's death.  As the two of them try to decide what to do, the police arrive.  Who called them remains a mystery.  It soon transpires that Anthony, after leaving behind a somewhat incriminating letter for Father Oliver, has disappeared.  Eve knows that Anthony wouldn't have harmed his sister, but who did have a motive to kill her?  And where are the writings of Sister Maria that are missing from Kelly's room?

As Eve determines to get to the truth, she's thrown an unexpected curve ball in the person of a hunky police detective, Earl Lujan.  Whenever he's around doing questioning, Eve begins to feel all lightheaded.  Surely there's not a romance on the horizon???

The book progresses with Eve putting herself in dangerous situations while trying to get at the truth.  At the same time, she struggles with trying to decide what she should do with her life.  She hoped to stay at the monastery, but the archbishop has, for unknown and unexplained reasons, decided that the monks and nuns can no longer live together and the nuns must go.  After taking a vow of obedience, the nuns have no choice but to leave, but the whole thing doesn't sit well with Sister Eve.  She begins to question her future as a nun, as well as whether women have ever had a place in the church.  The mistreatment of Sister Maria, who was questioned repeatedly by the Inquisition during her lifetime, has echoed down through the centuries and shown that women are still being treated as second-class citizens by the male-dominated church.

This is the third book in the Sister Eve series, so I'm sure there are more to come.  It will be interesting to see what Eve decides to do with her life (although she seems to enjoy poking her nose into other people's business and listening outside doors too much to give up being a private detective).  It will also be interesting to see if anything develops with Detective Lujan in the romance department, something I'm sure Sister Eve hadn't expected in her life!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Sister Eve and the Blue Nun from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review