Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The destiny drinking game

Rev. Parker Saint (born Brian Parker) seems to have everything going for him.  As the pastor of a popular mega-church, he has a large television following and a new book coming out.  But then there is the totally out of character "travel rage" incident at the airport where he ended up getting irate and assaulting an airline employee.  In order to avoid possible criminal charges, Rev. Saint agrees to work with the police as a consultant on a series of brutal murders.

Five people have been murdered in what looks to the police to be some sort of religious or Satanic manner.  Churches in the Grand Rapids area have also been vandalized.  Rev. Saint reluctantly agrees to assist the police, even though he feels completely out of his depth.  Both his father and grandfather were ministers at a local church, which suffered dwindling membership and eventually was forced to leave their building.  Parker is now under the guidance of Joshua Holton, an even more popular and influential televangelist, who has been guiding his career and helping his rise in popularity.  Unfortunately, Holton has strict guidelines for his continuing assistance, the most important of which is that Parker make himself available for weekly calls from his mentor.

That had been no problem, but once the police persuade him to work with them on the murder cases, Parker's time is basically spoken for.  Matters aren't helped when three mysterious priests, Father Michael, Father Ignatius and Father Xavier also show up and demand Parker's help (they have a DVD of the alleged assault of the airline employee that they might have to release to the media).  They are part of a shadowy, secret society called the Jesuits Militant who investigate religious-based crimes for the Vatican.  They are convinced the murders and vandalisms are connected, and that they are related to an attempt to find the Crown of Marbella.  This holy relic has been missing for many years, but their research indicates it might actually have made its way to Grand Rapids. They are most interested in recovering it.

So during the day, Parker follows along with police raids, suspect interrogations, autopsies, and anything else they can drag him along to.  At night, the priests show up for debriefing and further investigations.  Naturally, Parker's ministry suffers.  He has his assistant, Paige, book guest ministers for his weekly sermons, but Joshua Holton is becoming increasingly irate at being ignored.

At the same time, we follow along with "Danny" a young man who is possessed by demons.  He finds that going into small churches allows him to receive all sorts of help from the congregations -- money and exorcisms being the main draws.  He goes around to all of the churches in the area, because he discovers that once he undergoes an exorcism, the demons come back in greater numbers and with much greater power than before.  Could he be the same "Damien," a young man with seemingly creepy influence over the young people of Grand Rapids?

I enjoyed the book and was anxious to see how it played out.  There are many humorous moments in the story, even when dealing with such gruesome and disturbing topics.  The author was perhaps a bit too hard on "Rev. Saint," who's New Age-y catchphrase "God's awesome, and so are you!" is just one of the many digs at the whole "positive thinking" movement.  I also felt as if the final confrontation between the evil-doer and Rev. Saint was a bit too drawn out.  Still, the book is very entertaining and certainly a page-turner!

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Satan must have been napping

Lena Jones works as a private investigator in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Her business, Desert Investigations, is a two person operation. She's assisted in her duties by her partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, who is proud of his Pima Indian heritage.  Their latest adventures take place in the book Desert Rage, the eighth Lena Jones adventure.

The book starts out on an unsettling note, when 14 year old Allison Cameron and her boyfriend Kyle Gibbs take her gravely injured dog Misty to the vet.  They are very concerned about the welfare of the dog, but the fact that the bodies of Allison's parents and 10 year old brother are in the house with them doesn't seem to bother them very much.  After dropping off the dog, they attempt to flee to California, but are caught and returned to Scottsdale.  Once in custody, both confess to the brutal beating deaths of the family.

Lena is contacted by Representative Juliana Thorsson and asked to investigate the case.  Thorsson has been a very outspoken politician in the area, and is gearing up for a run for the Senate.  She confides in Lena that while a struggling college student, she was an egg donor for her sister and for the Cameron family.  Allison is her biological daughter.  She hadn't been in contact with the family, but she happened to see Allison and her mother in a store one day, and due to the family resemblance, she quickly realized Allison was her daughter.  She also believes that the girl is incapable of killing her family.

When Lena begins investigating the case, one of her first stops is the juvenile detention center to interview Allison.  Allison is defiant and sticks to her confession, claiming that she hired a "hit man" with her allowance money.  The family had been bound, gagged and tortured before being killed, and Lena doubts a hit man would have taken so much trouble (even if he would work for allowance money!).  It's also odd that Kyle, a foster child who loves animals, would have hurt Misty the dog while killing the family.

Lena's research finds that the father of the family, an emotionally remote but gifted emergency room physician, has a secret second job.  This leads to a line of inquiry that finds plenty of new suspects with a reason to want Dr. Cameron and his family dead.

While investigating the murders, Lena also has personal problems to deal with.  As a child she had been found in the street with a gunshot wound to the head, and nothing is known of her family.  She grew up in foster care, where she was terribly abused in some of the placements.  One of her foster mothers, Madeline, regards her as a true daughter and is a frequent source of friendship and support.  Lena still continues to have nightmares about her early childhood, though.  Also, she gains an enemy when she has a car towed that is illegally parked in front of her office.  That leads to all sorts of physical and property-related problems . . .

Even though this book is part of a series, I enjoyed reading it.  It's obvious that the author has a true love for the southwest culture and history (although perhaps not the climate!) and it has made me want to visit Scottsdale -- although probably not in July!  I plan to go back and read the other books in the series to get caught up, and I look forward to finding out more about Lena's past in the upcoming books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Desert Rage from Poisoned Pen Press in exchange for this review

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tarred by the brush of history

People all over the world have a continuing fascination with the uniquely American phenomenon of the Wild West.  The idea of cowboys on the open range stirs images of freedom and the wide open range.  There was also a lawlessness that has, to some extent, been romanticized.  The book Cattle Kate takes a look at the true story behind a terrible crime that was never punished.

Ella Watson, posthumously dubbed "Cattle Kate," was a young woman who moved to Wyoming in 1885.  She had been born in Canada to Scotch-Irish parents, but the family emigrated to Kansas when she was young, lured by the promise of free land.  Her family prospered and she eventually married William Pickell, a neighbor who was initially kind but soon turned out to be an abusive spouse.  She fled back to her parents and filed for divorce.
Many people had been lured to Kansas by the Homestead Act, which provided 160 acres of government land to people who would move there, cultivate the land, build a house, and stay for at least 5 years.  By the time Ella and her siblings grew into adulthood, most of the Kansas land had already been claimed.  Eager to get away from her ex-husband, Ella set out alone for the territory of Wyoming, which was offering a similar free-land program.

Ella began her life in Wyoming working as a cook in a boarding house.  She saved money to pay the filing fee for her land claim, as well as to invest in building materials for her house.  She soon meets James Averell who owns a roadhouse on a busy crossroads.  They begin a romantic relationship, but decide to hold off on getting married.  That way, they could each apply for the 160 acre homestead.  Otherwise, as a family, they would only be eligible for one plot of land.

Unfortunately, the site Ella chose had been used as grazing land by a powerful cattleman, A.J. Bothwell.  Even though the land was not owned by him, he felt entitled to continue using it and tried everything he could to discourage Ella from building a cabin and run her off the land.  Undeterred, she continues clearing the property and even demands that Bothwell pay her a fee for allowing his cattle to access the stream that runs through her land.

Bothwell and his powerful friends try other means to block Ella's plans.  She applies for a brand to mark the cattle she hopes to buy, but she's denied.  When a neighbor decides to leave the area, he sells his brand to her.  She buys a small herd of cattle and duly brands them with her new marker.  Bothwell and his friends, enraged at being thwarted, ride up to Ella's farm one day and accuse her and James of rustling the cattle.  She denies the charges, but the cattlemen lynch her and James. She had just turned 29 years old. This isn't really a spoiler, since the book starts out with Ella and James being hanged and expecting to be saved at any moment.

News of the lynchings reaches the authorities, who begin to investigate.  Since the story is newsworthy, the local newspaper also gets involved.  The journalists are dependent on the good will of the powerful cattlemen, so they publish their version of events -- that Ella (now given the nickname "Cattle Kate") and James Averell were killed for stealing cattle.  Anyone who had witnessed the "crime" and might have come to the defense of the couple mysteriously disappeared.

This story was written based on a great deal of research into the life of Ella Watson.  The book has a very extensive list of endnotes that give the outline and background of Ella's life.  There is some follow-up on what happened to the evildoers in the story, and sadly, the answer is: not much.  Still, it was fascinating to read this story and get the facts behind the myth.  Ella deserves to have her name cleared and not to go down in history as she was painted in news reports of the incident, as a cattle thief and prostitute.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Cattle Kate from Poisoned Pen Press in exchange for this review.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A general air of having come from Bobonong

Mma Ramotswe and her friends are back in the 15th installment of the adventures of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. This time, people are branching out into new careers in The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe.

The detective agency is still attracting new clients.  In this book, Mma Ramotswe and her co-director, Mma Makutsi are approached by a man and his sister to help them get to the bottom of a mystery.  They are part of the Indian community in Gaborone, and an Indian lady they do not know has come to their house and claims to have amnesia.  They want to help her, but have no idea where to begin.  The immigration authorities are becoming impatient with this person who has no papers, and therefore, a somewhat dubious claim to be allowed to remain in the country.  How will they get to the bottom of this mystery?

Luckily, they have a new employee who can help them with surveillance.  Charlie, the apprentice mechanic who can never pass the exams to finish his apprenticeship, has been let go by Mr. JLB Matekone.  The garage isn't doing as much business as in the past, and so someone had to go.  Since the garage and the detective agency share a premises, Mma Ramotswe hears the commotion that occurs when Charlie is informed that he no longer has a job.  Feeling sorry for him, she offers him a position at the detective agency.  After all, Mma Makutsi is now a partner in the business, so perhaps she won't have time for all the mundane, day-to-day tasks that need to be done in the office.  Also, Charlie's position is so new that people won't recognize him if he needs to follow someone.  This is just what happens when he's given the assignment to follow the amnesiac lady.  Unfortunately, while waiting for her to emerge from the house and actually go somewhere, he gets a bit distracted when a pretty girl walks by . . .

At the same time, Mma Makutsi, fresh off her promotion at the detective agency, decides to branch out into the restaurant business.  She plans to leave the day-to-day running of the restaurant in the hands of others, but she will be the boss, make no mistake.  She feels that there needs to be a place for the "fashionable" people to gather, and her restaurant will be just that place.  There are plenty of people who need to be hired, though, and in her haste to get everything up and running, she takes some bad advice.  This wouldn't necessarily be a fatal mistake, but guess who is the new restaurant critic for the local newspaper?  None other than her mortal enemy, the evil 50% Violet Semphotho.  Apparently there weren't enough Handsome Men in the cafe at the time of her visit, because she was especially mean in her review.  Will the fashionable set be put off by her catty remarks?  And when will Mma Makutsi ever learn to listen when her shoes are speaking to her?  Not everyone has talking shoes, so you would think this alone would cause her to take note of their comments.

Once again, we have a very pleasant visit with our friends at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.  The only small quibble I have is that Mma Makutsi is starting to be a bit annoying with her ill-advised remarks and her judgemental ways.  Everyone has to tip-toe around her, and it's all starting to be a bit uncomfortable.  She was always my favorite character, and I hope she won't become more unlikeable in future books.

Final Verdict for The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe:  Four Gherkins, for being a welcome look into the lives of our favorite Batswana

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More murder in dark and dreary Ystad

Even though we thought we'd seen the last of Kurt Wallander, he makes a return appearance in An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell.  In this novella, Wallander is thinking of buying a house in the country, but the first house he goes to view turns out to have skeletons not in the closet, but buried in the yard.

Wallander has grown tired of city life and longs to move to the country and get a dog.  His daughter Linda is also living with him in his apartment in town and working with him on the police force.  So whether he wants to distance himself from the city living or his daughter is not really clear!  His co-worker Martinson knows he's looking for a place in the country, so when his wife's relative has to move from his farmhouse to a nursing home, it seems like great timing.

Wallander takes the keys to the house and goes out to view it.  As he's looking around the garden, he trips over something.  On closer inspection, it turns out to be a bony hand sticking up from the ground.  Naturally, forensic officers come in for a look and end up discovering the skeleton.  The medical examiner can't be more specific than to say that the body has been in the ground "for a long time."  The skeleton belongs to a woman in her 50s who died from hanging.  So suicide is considered, but if that were the case, how did she end up buried in the garden?

Wallander, as he's been known to do, goes back to the house to look around, and notices that some bushes seem out of place.  More digging ensues and what do you know, there's another body down there.  This time, the body is that of a man, and once again, it's not exactly "fresh."  Wallander and his team begin looking at the history of the house and trying to trace its former occupants.  This leads them all the way back to the chaotic war years, when refugees were flooding in and records weren't as well-kept as they are today.

Also in keeping with his usual practice, Wallander goes off to investigate some hunches, and ends up in some hot water . . . but of course he's able to solve the crime and live to fight another day.  Although he decides this particular house is not the one for him!

The book also contains a very interesting afterward written by Henning Mankell where he talks about how he came up with the idea for the Wallander character, and his surprise at the global popularity of the books.  This book was originally published in Holland as a giveaway for people who bought another mystery novel.  The events in this story are meant to take place just before the last Wallander book, A Troubled Man.  There is a bit of foreshadowing of the events in that book, with Wallander being depressed and uneasy at visiting elderly people, and worrying about his own future.

I've always had a soft spot for Wallander, since "Mördare Utan Ansikte" (Faceless Killers) was the first book I was able to read in Swedish.  I still remember the thrill of picking it up in the local library, paging through it, and realizing I understood it (more or less).  So Kurt and I go way back!  I'm distressed to read that Mankell says in the afterward of this book that absolutely, positively, this is the last we will hear of Kurt Wallander.  He doesn't rule out future books with Linda, however, so I'm hoping that we will get some news of him from her stories!

Final Verdict of An Event in Autumn: Four Gherkins, for being a welcome visit with an old crime-fighting friend

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Becky's still shopping, but it's for work!

You've gotta admire Becky Bloomwood, the heroine of the Shopaholic series.  No matter how badly her grandiose plans turn out (and they always fail spectacularly), she never stops dreaming and planning for her glittering future.  She's up to her old tricks in Shopaholic to the Stars.

The Brandon family (Becky, husband Luke and two year old Minnie) relocate to Los Angeles when Luke gets involved in a project related to the film industry.  Becky had hoped to continue her career as a personal shopper, but when that job falls through, she sets her sights on bigger and better things:  becoming a Hollywood stylist.  Certainly, her background in fashion and her close friendship with renowned fashion designer Danny Kovitz would seem to indicate that being a stylist is the ideal career for her.  But how does she get her foot in the door?

Naturally, Luke is no help.  Even though he's working closely with movie star Sage Seymour, will he help Becky with introductions and red carpet appearances?  Not likely.  He remains as unimpressed as ever.  Still, he does just happen to mention to Becky that Sage is looking for someone to join her "team" in running a charity marathon -- the next day.  Naturally, Becky immediately takes steps to participate.  She goes shopping for the perfect running outfit.  While in the store, she happens to see someone shoplifting and runs after the thief.  She's shocked when the culprit turns out to be another Hollywood star, Lois Kellerton.  Lois gives Becky the stolen merchandise and makes her promise to tell no one.

In the meantime, Becky enrolls Minnie into a pre-school that turns out to have a waiting list and very competitive parents vying for the few openings.  So how was Becky able to get Minnie in with no problems?  It turns out the school is run by none other than Becky's nemesis:  Alicia Billington (known non-affectionately as Alicia Bitch-Longlegs). Alicia seems to be all sweetness and light, but Becky is still suspicious.

Soon, Becky's best friend Suze and her family arrive for a visit, but Becky's laser focus on getting started with her styling career doesn't leave her much time to see them.  Before leaving England, she had promised to look up an old friend of her father's, and when that leads nowhere, her father also hops on a plane over to LA.

At the same time, Becky has finally managed to get acquainted with Sage Seymour and gets invited to a big event, but an embarrassing incident leads Becky to her "15 minutes of fame" -- Hollywood style.  She hires bodyguards and begins contemplating appearing on a plastic surgery reality show.  Meanwhile, Suze is facing her own problems, which Becky seems too self-absorbed to help with, and when Suze's husband and Becky's father head out on a mysterious road trip, Becky finally has to take note of what's going on under her own roof.

While I love the madcap antics that Becky always gets involved in, I didn't like the way this book seemed to be just a set-up for the next book.  We all know and love Becky and the other characters in the series, so I didn't like it that everything wasn't resolved in this book.  I'm sure it will be a while before the next book is released, and all of the events of this book will be long forgotten by then!  Still, it's good to spend some time in Becky's fashionable, high energy world again.

Final Verdict for Shopaholic to the Stars: Four Gherkins, for being an amusing look at  the life of a self-absorbed fashionista

Friday, October 31, 2014

A shadowy shocking story

I am a long-time fan of podcasts, and the Swedish Radio series P3 Dokumentär recently had a program about the infamous von Sydowska murders.  Even though I lived in Sweden for several years and my Swedish husband has introduced me to many interesting aspects of Swedish history and culture, this crime was unknown to me.  In 1932, the wealthy Fredrik von Sydow murdered his father and two servants, then fled with his young wife Ingun.  As the police closed in, he shot her and then himself.  In the nearly 100 years since the crime was committed, no one has really known what the motive for such a random and senseless act of violence could have been.

I was very interested to hear that someone connected to the family had written a book about the case.  Helena Henschen was the daughter of Fredrik's sister Marianne, who was 15 years old at the time of the crime.  The book I Skuggan av ett Brott (In the Shadow of a Crime), is somewhat unusual.  It's classified as fiction, but there is plenty of factual information included.  The author (who sadly passed away in 2011) interviewed people who were connected to the crime -- her mother (although she was always reluctant to discuss it), the von Sydow's daughter Monica, a sibling of one of the murdered servants, etc. as well as used public records and archives to reconstruct the facts of the story.  There were events, however, where no documentation was available, and in those cases she constructed an imagined narrative of what might have happened based on the facts that were known.  These events include how Fredrik and Ingun (called Sofie throughout the book, for some reason) met, Ingun's troubled relationship with her step-mother, and so on.

The story is fascinating in part because it involves people who moved in extremely privileged circles.  The von Sydow family was especially rich and powerful.  Fredrik's father, Hjalmar, was a well-known politician and leader in the Swedish Employers' Confederation.  Ingun's father was also a very successful businessman, but he wasn't successful enough (or from a prominent enough family) for Fredrik's father to approve of the match.  Fredrik and Ingun met because their families had neighboring summer houses on an island outside Stockholm.  They also had another thing in common -- absent mothers. Fredrik's mother abused morphine and cocaine (which her son also reportedly did) and died when he was young.  Ingun's mother ran off with a Romanian musician and left her husband and four children.  The children were never told what happened to their mother; she was simply gone one day and never mentioned again.

Despite parental objections, Ingun continued to see Fredrik and when she became pregnant, she was sent to Italy to have the baby.  Her step-mother's sister lived there, and the baby girl was left with her (although Ingun did eventually take custody of the child when she was around two years old). When Ingun returned to Sweden, she and Fredrik resumed their relationship and were eventually married, although they continued to live apart.   Fredrik, although a law student, was a typical spoiled brat:  lazy, frequently drunk, and chronically short of money.  Not long before the murders, Fredrik awoke to find his bed on fire (likely the result of passing out while smoking) and jumped from a three story window to escape the flames.  He suffered numerous broken bones and other injuries, so is it possible that what happened later was the result of some head trauma?  It certainly no doubt increased his consumption of drugs.  His behavior was so erratic that Ingun had filed for divorce, although she couldn't bring herself to go through with it, especially after he was injured.

On March 7, 1932 Hjalmar von Sydow's niece, who was living with the family, came home from school and discovered the bodies of Hjalmar, the maid Ebba Hamm and the cook Karolina Herou.  They had all been beaten to death, likely with an iron bar.  Since Fredrik was missing, the police immediately began searching for him.  Several visitors to the flat throughout the day reported that Fredrik met them at the door and wouldn't allow them in, but they did glimpse Ingun inside.  She had apparently helped to clean up the blood (although why bother when you leave 3 bodies behind?). After attempting to clean up the apartment, Fredrik and Ingun ordered a taxi and made a number of stops.  At one of them, Fredrik visited a friend and borrowed a pistol (the friend apparently didn't ask too many questions).  The champagne and oysters were flowing when the police managed to track the couple down at a restaurant.  Wanting to be discreet, the police asked a waiter to inform Fredrik that they wished to speak to him outside.  Fredrik and Ingun got up and walked toward the door.  Suddenly, in full view of several witnesses, Fredrik leaned forward and whispered something in Ingun's ear, then pulled out the pistol and shot her in the head.  He immediately then turned the gun on himself.

While the bare facts of the crime are well-known, this book is fascinating for the glimpse into the world of the surviving family members.  The author's mother was more or less shunned for the rest of her life -- so much so that she eventually moved with some of her children to Denmark to escape the notoriety.  In later years, she informed her daughter Helene that she had burned all the photos and letters from her family.  She was always reluctant to answer any questions about the case, so no doubt the author's curiosity was increased by the secrecy surrounding her family's history.

I enjoyed the story a great deal, and of course it was fascinating to read the author's interviews with people who were directly affected by the events that happened so long ago.  I appreciated the mix of fact and fiction that made this an interesting look into a tragic event.

Final Verdict for I Skuggan av ett Brott: Four Gherkins, for being a believable account at the lead-up to a horrific crime