Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hits a lot of wrong notes

The Best of Adam Sharp contains some important messages about the folly of pining after a "lost love" and also the importance of recognizing and appreciating what you have now.  Unfortunately, it takes a long time to deliver the message.

Adam Sharp works in IT in England and is an amateur musician.  In the late 1980s, he's sent to Australia for a temporary work project.  While there, he is playing piano and singing in a bar one night when a young woman comes up and begins singing with him.  It seems she is an actress who is currently appearing on a soap opera, so she's well-known to everyone in the room -- except Adam.  He eventually begins an affair with the woman, Angelina, even though she is currently married (although unhappily).

When Adam's job assignment is up, he moves on to the next assignment in Singapore, and feels like he is in no position to ask Angelina to leave her job and marriage to follow him.  Nor is he willing to give up his job and move across the world to be with her.  Eventually he begins a long-term relationship with a woman in England, Claire, and they settle down into domesticity.  But of course, he never forgets Angelina and always wonders "what could have been."

Fast forward 20 years. He and Claire have become rather bored with each other.  He works now and then on temporary IT contracts, but it's really Claire who brings in the money.  They tried to have children, but were unsuccessful and didn't want to to the IFV route.  Now Claire's company is possibly going to be purchased by a larger company, and if that happens, she will have to move to the USA, at least for a few years, to complete the transition.  Once again, Adam is unwilling to uproot himself (although there doesn't seem much to give up) and so he pretty much decides that if Claire goes to the USA, that will be the end of their relationship.

At the same time, out of the blue, he begins receiving messages online from Angelina.  In the years since their relationship she has divorced, remarried, had 3 children, and become a lawyer.  With his own relationship in something of a decline, Adam again begins to fantasize about having a relationship with Angelina.  It just so happens that she and her husband are coming to France for a vacation, and she proposes that Adam might like to join them -- for old time's sake.

The second half of the book, when Adam and Angelina reconnect, is quite long and drawn out, and veers into very unlikely territory.  Both Adam and Angelina's husband, Charlie, fall all over themselves to wait on her hand and foot.  What is really going on in Angelina's marriage is also a question that takes a long, long time to resolve.  

All in all, I found the book to be quite annoying.  Not only the complicated relationships, but the fact that Adam, wherever he goes, finds a piano and immediately sits down and starts to play and sing is quite far-fetched.  Not only that, but whoever happens to be around (friends, significant others, general strangers) beg him to continue playing and shout out requests.  Also, he knows just the right song and just the right lyrics to sing (while giving significant and meaningful glances) for any situation.  If I knew this person I would be MORTIFIED and refuse to go anywhere with him.  And why are there pianos at every bar, house and airport he visits???

While the book may contain some important messages, it takes so long to get there, with so many musical asides, that at the end I was just grateful it was over, rather than enlightened!

Disclaimer:  I received an Advanced Readers' Edition of this book in exchange for my review

Monday, March 6, 2017

The enemy within

Recent events in the news, including the current administration's attempts to ban travelers from certain countries and plans to build a wall on the U.S. border have highlighted attempts to keep terrorists from entering the country. The book United States of Jihad takes a look at a much more unsettling phenomenon:  the people who are already in the country who are plotting and carrying out terrorist activities.

The disturbing fact that American citizens would align themselves with terrorist organizations (either formally joining or attempting to attach their names to a cause through violent activities) is something that is difficult for most people to comprehend.  The author, a national security analyst for CNN, has come up with a number of factors that home-grown terrorists seem to share.  These include being upset by US foreign actions in Muslim countries, having a "cognitive opening" to the ideas of radical Islam (usually preceded by a personal loss or disappointment), and looking for a sense of purpose through joining a large group.

Citing examples such as Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who had contact with many people who later carried out terrorist attacks, the author notes how the rise of the Internet has allowed the message of terrorist leaders and recruiters to reach more people than ever.  al-Awlaki used the Internet to distribute his lectures throughout the world, and even to chat with followers on his personal blog when he was in hiding in Yemen.  The ability of "lone wolf" type attackers to gain inspiration for their "missions" from online sources makes the job of law enforcement that much more difficult.

The book also discusses the backgrounds and progress to radicalization for people involved in some well-known attacks, such as the Fort Hood shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing.   The recruitment techniques and "path to paradise" promised to impressionable young people are detailed in the book.  The war in Syria has also provided many recruits with an easy way to join ISIS:  through Istanbul.  While attempting to join ISIS campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq proved too complicated for many, entering Syria via Turkey has been a much easier path.  Additionally, those who train with ISIS in Syria are easily able to travel back to Europe, where they may commit terrorist attacks.  Since the 9/11 attacks, however, ISIS or Taliban inspired attackers in the US have been lone wolf attackers who aspire to be a part of something big.

These individual attackers, while hard to detect and intercept, are also unlikely to be able to carry out a mass event like 9/11 again, according to the author.  As well as governmental attempts to track and stop potential terrorists in the US, several people are speaking out about the terrorists using Islam as a justification for their atrocities.  Nader Hassan, cousin of the Fort Hood shooter, and Kerry Cahill, whose father died in the attack, have joined forces at the Nawal Foundation to denounce violence and terrorist.  It is hoped that as they spread their message of acceptance and understanding, it will eventually drown out the voices of hate and violence.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of United States of Jihad from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

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